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Friday, April 4, 2014

Oceanic thoughts about Enceladus

Signs of a subsurface ocean have been found on Saturn's moon Enceladus. That makes it a prime target for future exploration, up there with Jupiter's moon Europa and Saturn's moon Titan. But money is tight as far as exploration of the outer solar system goes. I've been writing about that for many years ("Deep Space, Nein!?"; one of the best headlines I never wrote; thanks Nick Schulz). A few years ago I wrote about ambitious Europa exploration plans that subsequently were scrapped in favor of more modest possible missions.

The outer solar system has vast untold and untapped potential for exploration and exploitation (in a good sense of the term). But unfortunately its impingement on public consciousness is pretty minuscule, which shapes and is reflected in the limited budgets allocated for finding out what's out there.

There was an interesting piece yesterday by Richard Fernandez at PJ Media called "No Country for Young Men," complaining about the lack of youthful, forward-looking priorities in America today. I disagreed with a lot of the piece (protecting the environment is such a priority, contrary to his picture of it as something old people care about). But Fernandez has a point when he says:
The big giveaway is we as a civilization don’t want to go to the planets any more, because the old don’t want to go anywhere. Imagine clambering into spaceships! The very idea gives us the shivers. Only the young and immortal travel to places where they may never be able to get Ibuprofen.
Me: It's probably a long time before anybody takes an in-person trip to Enceladus, but it would be a good thing if younger people today were to dream about that, or know that Enceladus evidently has a subsurface ocean and get caught up in the romantic scientific dream of finding life elsewhere--or heck, even know that Enceladus exists.

When the Voyager probes passed Jupiter in the late 70s, Carl Sagan exulted that Jupiter was now "a place" not just a point of light in the sky. The same would've been true of Saturn as the probes passed by it in the 80s. Sadly, we've lost some of that sense of the outer solar system as having real places that matter to us. But I hope that at least a few young people are aware of this latest Enceladus discovery and eager to know more about what's under that ice.

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