Tag Archives: astronomy

Farewell Cassini

At about 6:55AM CDT this morning, the NASA Cassini spacecraft mission came to an end.  After 13 years of stunning science, the craft was sent into the ringed gas-giant planet.  Low on fuel after 294 photographic orbits around Saturn and its rings and moons, the decision was made by NASA to let Cassini self-destruct in Saturn’s atmosphere to avoid contamination of possible life-bearing Saturnian moons (particularly Titan and Enceladus).

Cassini made roughly 450,000 photographs during its voyage, adding untold amounts of knowledge about stormy Saturn (upper atmospheric wind speeds of up to 1800 kph/1100 mph), hazy moon Titan (with an icy-rain atmosphere and cold lakes of hydrocarbons), and amazing moon Enceladus (spouting salt-water geysers from under its surface), among other targets.

NASA is offering a free eBook with images from the mission here: Cassini 

Science like this has the benefit of providing both knowledge and philosophy.  Ponder if you will the significance of Cassini’s accomplishments, in terms of pure science and discovery.  Although discoveries still await us here on our home planet, we have only begun to touch the final frontier of space with a human hand.  As this small hand reaches toward unknown realms, we will, perhaps, be prompted to attain some sense of unity here on Earth.  The hand we reach with is one, that of humanity, shorn of petty politics, racial divisiveness, and ignorance.  If we so choose, we can let the grand accomplishments of this small spacecraft advance our knowledge . . . and our sense of oneness.    

Farewell, faithful traveler.


The ultimate Time Shadow?

Unless you’ve been hiding in a closet, you know that yesterday was the “Great American Eclipse.”  Although that moniker sounds like something developed in an advertising agency (perhaps it was), the event is a rare and spectacular occurrence.  It has been 99 years since a total solar eclipse crossed the entire United States, and 38 years since a total solar eclipse was visible anywhere in the continental US.  Whether your interest in this event is from a cultural, astrological, or astronomical point of view, there is no doubt of its significance.

I’ve been pondering if a total solar eclipse is the ultimate time shadow.  At this blog (and via my novels and other writings), I am interested in the notions of time, shadows, twilight, and horizons, and the multitude of ways those topics can be explored, understood, and marveled upon (see the title and subtitle at the top of the page).  Surely, an uncommon total solar eclipse, which is a shadow sprinting across the land and its horizons at roughly 1700 miles per hour, would have to be Time Shadow Numero Uno.

But as I contemplated the idea further, I decided otherwise.  A total solar eclipse is indeed a time shadow of high order, as I define the concept.  But my ideas, relevant as they may be here and there, are merely ephemeral dust in the wind.  I suspect one would have to nominate the journey we embark upon at the end of our physical lives as the ultimate time shadow, since it is, after all, a one-way crossing of an unknowable horizon into an unknown realm. 

However, a total solar eclipse remains awe-inspiring no matter how we define it.  The photos and video of yesterday’s event are phenomenal.  Those who were fortunate enough to be in the 70-mile wide path of totality have notched a bucket-list item into their lifelines.

(Photo from the NASA Internet feed, Carbondale IL, during a brief moment of open sky at approximately 1:22PM CDT)

Our “Mote of Dust”

This is a photo of Earth, as viewed through the rings of Saturn. The image was made by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, peering over its shoulder toward a home it will never see again. Astronomer Carl Sagan said it best in his 1994 essay “Pale Blue Dot,” which is condensed here: “Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there-on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam. The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. It underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.” (NASA photograph)