Tag Archives: Planets

The Loneliest Robots

Spare a thought for Voyager 2.

The spacecraft, which has been in operation for just over 32 years reached a humbling milestone this week; 20 years since the closest approach to Neptune. On August 25th, 1989 it came within 5000 km of the big, blue gas giant, taking spectacularly beautiful ‘close-ups’ that Adams, Galle and Le Verrier could only have dreamt of (see pictures after the jump). Just 5 hours later, it made its closest approach to Triton, Neptune’s largest moon, which is spiraling in slowly to its eventual demise.

Voyager 2 is so far the only probe to have visited Neptune (and Uranus) completing the reconnaissance of our Solar System’s main planets. I was only three years old at the time, but thanks to the achievements of the Voyager programme, I grew up with books containing a complete set of stunning photographs and they inspired me no end. Every time I look through my old books, I remember not to take this for granted. Most of the planets’ discoverers lived long before they were seen up close and it is only through the hard work of many scientists and engineers that in the time I live, we have landed probes on alien worlds (Huygens on Titan, 2005), we’ll soon be exploring dwarf planets (Dawn to Ceres, New Horizons to Pluto) and we’re continuously discovering other Solar Systems of all flavours. I can’t help but wonder how exploration will have improved hundreds of years after I’m gone, and how the distant planets being discovered today might also be seen in close up.

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Idealistic Musings On Space, The Universe, And What The Duck Has Planned For Us

Whatever the duck does have planned, I’m willing to bet it will be spectacularly unpleasant. Anyway.

It might be considered a disadvantage to talk about space considering I know virtually nothing about it. When I go on Wiki to discover new and crunchy space facts, I skip past all formulae or esoteric terminology; about the only numbers I can cope with are the ones describing size (15,000 miles? I must write that down). I am, in any practical sense regarding space, stupid. I gawp at the pretty photos and loll my tongue at the details of size, age and speed but when it comes to really understanding the underlying fabric I sort of zone out.

It’s tempting to defend my naivety by saying “Well, I see the world through the innocent eyes of a child, I don’t need any more’ but it’s not as if knowledge dulls your ability to feel wonder. We all need more, I’m just not fitted with a brain that can take it.

I’m pretty much a late arrival into the whole “space is fantastic’ thing, it was never something I considered much until recently. I made appreciative noises when confronted with facts like “OMG THREE EARTHS COULD FIT INTO JUPITER’S RED SPOT’ but never really made the connection between interesting facts and the true reality behind them.

Seasoned astrophys types like AndromedasWake, who is officially recognised as Knowing About Space, probably hide condescending smiles behind their hands when I go on like this. After all, they’ve known for years. But I’m like a child in a sweetshop and a stolen wallet, except the sweets are facts and the wallet is the interblagz. I could probably take this metaphor further.

I won’t.

The gist of this is . . . look up. Try to reconcile your limited perception of distance with the fact that we are tiny, just one planet going round a small star in a galaxy that is one of billions, hundreds of billions.

It’s tough. So start small. Let’s take the moon.

You can see the moon most nights, and it’s pretty. But even when it’s really very pretty indeed, it’s seldom remarked upon as anything more exciting than, say, scenery. People don’t look at the moon and think “Holy wowz, that’s a small planet. A small planet that’s so close I can make out incredible detail with my naked eye. With a telescope, I may as well be there.’ Why would you think that? It’s a more or less constant background to the night sky. But after the sun, it’s the clearest intrusion of the universe into our world. The nearest clearly visible extraterrestrial body, massively plunging through space even as you look at it. Just try to make a connection with it as a real object, as an entity in itself both separated and linked to us, far from reach but tantalisingly clear.

Now, let’s try something a little bigger. Find some dark glasses and look at the sun. (I am, of course, obliged by some feeble moral tendril to tell you that looking at the sun without adequate protection can result in damage to your eyes. Don’t do it.) If you widen your eyes and get used to the glare, you can see the disc pretty easily. Much like the moon, the sun is seldom really thought of. It’s just there. Except the sun is a bit more special than the moon. All those stars you can see at night? That’s what the sun is, except it’s close enough to be seen as a large, visible disc. It’s a star, and it’s right there. Go outside and look at it. Now! It’s unimaginably large, unimaginably far away, and we can see it. There are billions upon billions of these things in the universe. Even from 93 million miles, we can barely look at it without protection. Are you looking yet?

And then there’s the other planets, some of which can be seen with the naked eye. Real objects, as real as this planet but strange and different and untouched.

It’s hard to get out of the comfort zone and think about where we really are, how we are utterly insignificant even within our own solar system – let alone the monstrous size of the universe. Scale ceases to have any meaning at all. As soon as you even try to grasp where we actually are, that every point of light in the sky is a bewilderingly large star that exists, as real as our own or the ground you stand on, and the intervening space is almost completely empty tracts of vacuum (and, of course, the stars we can see with our eyes are but a fragmented slice of the entirety) . . . your mind sort of sheers away. It’s like having a thought just out of reach of your mind, but so much more. Just think of the gaps, of the reality of such cosmic beauty that we’ll never touch, that we can only look at from a distance more or less impossible to grasp. And think of the near-certainty that there is other life of some kind, somewhere – probably some many wheres – within the hundreds of billions of galaxies we’ve so far detected.

I know the barest crumb of all the knowledge available, and couldn’t begin to understand most of it. To everyone who’s already realised how ridiculously magnificent the universe is, ignore my burblings. To everyone who doesn’t really think about it, go outside and look up. Try just to grasp the night sky as an entire panorama of reality completely outside ourselves. All I know is . . . it’s amazing. I can’t tell you how to feel it, I can just say that it freaks me out in a manner both depressing and uplifting.

Watch this video. It may or may not help.