Thursday, April 26, 2012

Weirdness around Saturn

Unknown objects have been seen passing through the rings of Saturn.

Or so said the headlines in this article from Space on Yahoo.  Don’t anybody get their hopes high.  This is not at all about a UFO.  As a matter of fact, they are perfectly identifiable as this BBC article points out.  It amounts to little more than a “snowball fight” in space.

Clumps of ice fall through the rings, particularly the F-ring which is the outermost of Saturn’s brilliant ring system.  The Cassini space probe caught this celestial action as it was observing Saturn’s moon, Prometheus.  Someone might think this is all an elaborate viral marketing plan for the producers of this summer’s film, Prometheus, but I would say that’s premature.  But I digress.
It is in fact the presence of Prometheus and its gravitational field that causes the ice clumps to cut loose and plummet through the ring.  One of the more remarkable aspects of this are the jet trail plumes that these “snowballs” leave in their wake as they pass through the ring.  When astronomers later went back through other Cassini images, they found over 500 examples of these plumes.

Other than admiring the striking visage of the gas giant’s rings, which are composed mainly of water ice and rock fragments, studying those rings helps give us a better picture of just how solar systems are formed.  After all, most planets start out as rings of gas and dust.  Characteristics of Saturn’s rings mirror those principles, even if they aren’t in the process of creating another planet.  Part of this is how said rings influence other matter in motion around them, such as the ice clumps.  Understanding this entire process will hopefully give rise to better understanding of how all solar systems are formed and thereby help us better narrow our search for extraterrestrial life.

One curious bit that I learned from the BBC article is that the Cassini probe is actually slated to destroy itself in gases of Saturn in the year 2017.  This so as not to take the chance of the space probe falling onto the moon Titan, a moon where it is thought life might exist.  An Earth probe on Titan may contaminate the environment and skew tests for life.

I know what at least a few of you might be thinking.  Why do we need to know any of this?  My mind sees it this way: it simply shows us how vast space really is and just what is out there that we don't understand.  The vaster the better, I say.  For if the universe is so vast, then I must be so small.  Therefore, my failings and failures, in the cosmic scheme of things, must be so small.  I don't really matter.  Like an adenoidal wimp from the back of the class, I don't matter.  When juxtaposed against the majesty of the cosmos, that isn't a bad thing.  In fact, it brings me great comfort.  After all, what about me...or this world even...could be so interesting as to compare with the wide wonder of the universe?  Just another reason that I love learning about space.

In other news, another “UFO” was sighted around the Sun.  I really am getting sick of camera artifacts being construed as UFOs.

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