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Astrophysicists have long speculated about the creation of the moon.  Since the late twentieth century, the dominant theory has been “the giant impact hypothesis” which posits that a huge object about the size of Mars smashed into the newly coalesced Earth 4.5 billion years ago.  Astronomers name this mysterious proto-planet “Theia” after the titan who was the mother of the moon is ancient Greek mythology.  They speculate that the Earth and Theia melded together and the iron/heavy metal core of Theia sank into the molten Earth.  A great deal of the light material was thrown into orbit around Earth where it coalesced into two moons (the smaller of which was unstable and pancaked into the dark side of the moon a few million years after formation).

These are pretty intense ideas, however they explain many of the features of the moon and Earth (you can look at a comprehensive list on Wikipedia if you like).  Yet astrophysicists have not been completely satisfied by the current model of the giant impact hypothesis.  The composition of the moon is suspiciously identical to that of Earth (whereas, computer models seem to indicate that it should contain more of Theia).

This week, a scientific paper suggests that the collision was somewhat different than envisioned in the giant impact hypothesis.  The paper’s main author is Natsuki Hosono, and he has a revised version of how Theia hit Earth.  According to this new hypothesis, the freshly formed Earth was still piping hot and its surface was covered with a lava ocean.  Theia banged into Earth and careened off into space like a pool ball but the impact knocked the liquid ocean of lava into space, where it coalesced into one or two moons (which then ultimately amalgamated together).  The new hypothesis answers critical questions about lunar composition (and about the ratios of volatile elements on the moon).  Yet it does tend to beg questions such as what happened to Theia and what the nature of the Earth’s lava ocean was.

I guess we’ll keep watching the sky and the news to see how the world astronomy community reacts to the revised hypothesis.  In the mean time I will see what I can dig up concerning Theia (the goddess or the proto-planet).  That seems like the most intriguing part of the story yet details are weirdly exiguous.

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We are living in a glorious new era of super marketing. Usually the results of this are rather hideous: our livelihoods are hostage to “keyword position metrics” and “analytic toolbars”.  Every day the press is filled with histrionic drivel about threats which are statistically unlikely to hurt us (but which clearly drive hits). Yet there is a silver lining of a sort: in order to keep people’s attention, quotidian phenomena are being lavished with grandiloquent new names (or old poetic names which have been rediscovered and given new prominence).  Speaking of which, don’t forget to check out tonight’s spring equinox super worm moon!

These days, the full moon on each month is given a sobriquet which is reputedly derived from ancient Native American lore. Here is a table of these names:

January: Wolf moon

February: Snow Moon

March: Worm Moon

April: Pink Moon

May: Flower Moon

June: Strawberry Moon

July: Buck Moon

August: Sturgeon Moon

September: Corn Moon

October: Hunter’s Moon

November: Beaver Moon

December: Cold Moon

Now I don’t remember any of this from when I was growing up (although this is possibly because I was playing Pacman rather than hunting migratory elk).  The first time I remember hearing anything like this was in Disney’s “Pocahontas”.  Yet the names have an obvious and evocative allure which speak to ancient annual rhythms.

The “Worm Moon” of March is called that because the ground softens and worms start to appear  (although, come to think of it, the pinkish brown earthworms we all know so well are actually comparatively recent Eurasian invaders), but I like to imagine that it is the WORM moon when Lord Nergal, the God of Pestilence decides whether to winnow the overpopulated Earth.  Or perhaps it is the Wyrm Moon, when dragons come out of their winter eyries in the south and fly off to their accustomed fantasy realms…

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Ahem. At any rate, tonight marks an unusual occasion when the vernal equinox occurs at the same time the moon is full and at its perigee.  This will be the final super moon of 2019 so go outside and enjoy it while you drink traditional spring spirits and discuss beautiful nomenclature.

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Did you know it has been 30 years since a spacecraft swung by Neptune?  Voyager II was the first and last spacecraft to visit the strange ice world which (with the demotion of Pluto) is the outermost planet of our solar system.  A ball of gas, ice, rock and iron 17 times the size of Earth, Neptune is the third most massive planet and is the most dense of all the giant planets. However we know surprisingly little about this distant neighbor–a fact which was vividly demonstrated this week when astronomers discovered an unexpected new moon orbiting the planet.  This new moon brings the tally of Neptune’s moons to 14. Mark Showalter, a researcher at the SETI institute in California, discovered the little satellite accidentally, while working on another project and the new body was confirmed with the Hubble Space telescope (which is also still out there, by the way).

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Neptune’s largest moon is the retrograde Triton.  The second largest moon is Proteus, an irregular polyhedron with a diameter of 420 kilometers, named after the shape-shifting old man of the sea.  The new moon, which is named “Hippocamp”, after a seahorse like Greek sea monster (above) has a diameter of about 20 kilometers (about the length of Manhattan) and seems to have been formed from ejecta left over from when some primordial body slammed into Proteus.

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Astronomers have spent comparatively little time studying Uranus and Neptune compared to the other planets of the solar system–which is somewhat ironic since most of the exoplanets we are finding are ice giants.  It seems like they might be noticing this gap in their knowledge.  A new mission to the ice giants is the third top mission priority in a vote-based ranking of proposed probe missions (by astrophysicists…nobody asked me what I want *cough*  balloon mission to Venus’ atmosphere).  Hopefully we will get our act together and launch a modern robot out to the big blue ice worlds in the not-too-distant future.

What with all of the holiday excitement, we have failed to compliment the Chinese Space Program on their successful lunar landing.  On January 3rd, 2019, the Chang’e IV spacecraft landed on the South Pole-Aitken Basin, on the far side of the Moon, and deployed the Yutu-2 Rover.  Here is a stunning photo taken by the rover as it began its explorations of the lunar surface.  The spacecraft is, of course, named after the beautiful and sad Chinese moon goddess, Chang’e.
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To quote the Smithsonian magazine, “[the Chinese lander will] collect mineral and geological samples of the moon’s surface as well as investigate the impact of solar wind on the moon. The craft even has its own little farm, or lunar biosphere, aboard—the first of its kind.”  This miniature ecosystem consists of some potatoes, a few Arabidopsis plants (this is a hardy and universally known laboratory plant), and some living silkworm eggs in a special 3-kilogram (6.6-pound) aluminum terrarium (or lunarium?).
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I realized as I write this that I don’t even know the Chinese Space Agency’s name.  It turns out it is the Chinese National Space Administration “CNSA.” Their logo, immediately above, is a flying blue chevron with, I don’t know, blue wheat, or something–it looks like somebody mimeographed the Federation logo.  But who cares about their logo? [cough, Chinese space administrators, you could hire a graphic artist to make a space phoenix, a rocket tiger, or galactic dragon or something for about ¥150.00 and outshine everyone before you even leave the pad].  The CNSA are now doing things which have never been done.  This is the first landing on the dark side of the moon (which is not really dark, but which goes by that conceit since the moon is tidally locked).
United States triumphalism over our amazing moon program has obscured the fact that the first moon landing happened 50 years ago.  Nobody has been on the moon during my lifetime, and I am not young.  NASA has responded to budget cuts and whiplash conflicting demands from different presidential administrations by concentrating on robot probes of the unknown edges of the solar system. That is smart, practical, and amazing.  Yet some of the thrill and prestige that NASA had even during its silver age in the eighties and nineties is now wearing away.
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Of course America doesn’t even really have a functioning government right now, so perhaps it is better that we have decided to abandon our own bright dreams of moon bases and Mars missions…but it saddens me that we are so politically deadlocked that we are not pushing harder to explore and build in space.  All day, every day, billionaires tell us how scarce resources are and how much better the private sector is at allocating these precious resources (to super yachts, offshore bank accounts, and regulatory capture, apparently).  Well, resources are not scarce in space.  There is infinite real estate.  There are whole planets worth of matter.   There are wells of energy which create all of the energy humankind has ever used throughout all of our history within a picosecond.  Hopefully the brand new accomplishments of CNSA will remind the American people of our true nature–as scientists, explorers, and visionaries.  However if we are too fixated on the crimes and inanities of Individual Number 1 to pay attention to the universe, maybe the Chinese can build a floating colony on Venus.  I, for one, am looking forward to seeing what they have planned next.

We have a lot to talk about this week, but, as a Monday treat in the December darkness, there is a lot of news (and, yes, inflammatory pseudonews) from outer space.  Let’s get down to it and proceed through this grab bag of tidbits.

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The big headliner is something which has been in the offing since 1977.  According to NASA, the Voyager 2 space probe has left the heliosphere, the protective “bubble” of radiation and charged particles which surrounds the entire solar system, and the craft is now proceeding through interstellar space.  The spacecraft is only the second probe with any working instruments to accomplish this feat (the first was Voyager 1).  Based on telemetry, it seems that Voyager 2 crossed the Heliopause on November 5th (2018).  This occasion gives us reason to look back at the stupendous accomplishments made by the probe during the main stage of its mission. As it traveled through the Solar System, the craft visited all four gas giant planets and discovered 16 moons in addition to mysterious phenomena like Neptune’s Great Dark Spot, previously unknown rings around Neptune and Uranus, and cracks within the ice of Europa.  Perhaps it will provide a few more momentous discoveries as it heads into the great darkness between stars.

A second astonishing space headline is the existence of a recording of the wind on Mars.  NASA’s InSight lander (which we have been following here on this blog) captured the audio a few days ago and the space agency released the clip to the world this past weekend. This is the first recording of sound from a different planet.  You can listen to it here if you want to know what another world sounds like.

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OK…those were great stories, but by now you are probably asking where is the pseudonews which was promised in the opening sentence.  Pseudonews is news-like material designed to evoke a strong emotional response. The stories are actually revealed to be conjecture, opinion, propaganda/public relations material, or just straight-up celebrity dreck. A cursory scan of the top media sights reveals that many—or maybe most–of the most visited and commented upon pieces are exactly this sort of fatuous puffery, so I thought I better throw some into Ferrebeekeeper to see what happens.  For some reason the world can’t get enough of this folderol so let me know what you think!

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The first of these newslike stories is actually pretty interesting…if it is true, and I can’t find much confirmation of that.  Apparently the Southwestern Chinese city of Chengdu has plans to launch an artificial moon in 2020 to obviate the need for streetlights in the metropolis.  This plan is theoretically feasible, in the 1990s the Russians launched the Znamya experiment, which showed that satellites could be used for reflected illumination.  Yet the Znamya experiment didn’t produce much illumination…and the costs (bot known and unknown) of such a solution as Chengdu proposes would be outrageous.  The idea is worthwhile as a fantasy concept about planetary scale engineering, but until we hear more details I am dubious.

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Speaking of dubious, let’s end this article which started with such promise on a truly leaden note.  Professional athletes in America are often famous dullards—these are, after all, adults who are paid astronomical sums for running around playing children’s ball games.  The ignorant, misleading, and inflammatory declarations of athletes are a constant source of amazement and disgust. Which brings us to the story.  Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors (a contemporary basketball team) has announced that humans never visited the moon.  This conspiracy theory is common enough around the country, which is filled with people who lack the inclination or aptitude to assess whether fundamental truths are true or not, but it still makes me angry.  Do big media companies print this stuff so that “Steph” Curry fans will turn their back on the great accomplishments of the space program during the 1960s or does CNN just want people to believe less in science in general?

Of course not, major news sites are reporting this “news” merely for clicks.  I guess technically I am too, although I would be stunned if any Stephen Curry fans read this blog (if you do, please go elsewhere), yet I also have a more noble purpose in talking about this stupid Curry story.  In our age of information saturation, it is becoming more difficult to evaluate news sources.  Educational failures in public schools and political dysfunction have combined with the information revolution to cause ridiculous drivel to proliferate.  The closest analogy I can think of is the era after the printing press became widespread in Europe and crazy tracts appeared everywhere causing wars, confusion, and mayhem (although this previous information breakthrough ultimately led to the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment as well).  Society is working through another unruly adolescent growth spurt where we try to figure out how to build society-wide consensus out of all of the new tools and discoveries we have made.  The process is working out pretty unevenly so maybe we should stop publicizing the rantings of willfully ignorant and malevolent actors like Curry as “news stories”, even if they garner ratings. What’s next, a president who doesn’t believe that vaccines help people?  We will revisit these dark fruits of the information era soon, but first there is enormous news from right here on Earth.  Tune in tomorrow when we talk about discoveries made right under our feet.

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Every year we close out the year with obituaries.  I feel like the main-stream media does a pretty good job of memorializing the entertainers and showbiz folks who have passed away, so, although I loved Tom Petty, John Hillerman, Roger Moore, and John Hurt (and too many others), I will leave it to someone else to eulogize them.  Additionally, I have had less time to blog this year than I would like, so please don’t be upset if I miss a great and important scientist, algebraist, or artist.  That is what the comments are for!  I also tried to include some eminent scholars and artists from East Asia (since it feels like our counterweight cultures are divided by a gulf of misunderstanding and we overlook the cultural work being done there).  I was saddened to see how many astronauts from the golden first age of space exploration passed away.  Humankind becomes ever more insular and parochial: we squander our resources on useless giveaways to monopolistic companies and crooked oligarchs (who blow their money on status objects or remove it from circulation).  These days we barely even explore the heavens (much less travel there).  I wonder if there will ever be another generation of heroes to walk the moon or orbit the Earth once these figures from fade away.  At any rate, here is a brief list of 2017 obituaries to make us think about the brevity of life and the true nature of accomplishment:

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Zhou Youguang (January 13, 1906 – January 14, 2017) was a scholar who invented Pinyin, a system for the romanization of Mandarin Chinese (a language which does not fit easily into the Roman alphabet).  So excellent was his work that  Pinyin was officially adopted by the government of the People’s Republic of China in 1958.  Pinyin has now largely supplanted the Wade-Giles system and is the method by which Chinese is known to Western scholars or input on Roman keyboards.  Zhou Youguang lived through the dramatically changing China of the Qing Dynasty, The Republic of China, The Second World War Invasion by Japan, and The People’s Republic.  He was “sent down” during the Cultural Revolution and was critical of the Tiananmen Square Massacre.

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George A. Romero (February 4, 1940 – July 16, 2017) was the masterful director of terrifying zombie movies which were thinly veiled allegories for the problems of contemporary society.

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Kim Jong-nam (May 10 1971 – 13 February 2017): this unremarkable man was the eldest son of the genocidal sociopath Kim Jong-il,the late dictator of North Korea.  Kim Jong-nam was murdered in Singapore at the command of his brother (by means of poison, in a plot worthy of dark fantasy literature).  While Kim Jong-nam’s death is of no consequence in itself, it speaks to the criminal nature of the North Korean regime and foreshadows countless deaths to come at the mercurial will of their fat cruel tyrant.  There are two stories of why Kim Jong-nam was disinherited: in one story he was cut out of the family business for trying to sneak into Tokyo Disneyland (but insiders whisper he was exiled and ultimately murdered for favoring reform).

David Rockefeller (June 12, 1915 – March 20, 2017) was the last surviving grandson of John Davison Rockefeller Sr. (a 19th century tycoon who built the Standard Oil Trust and thus became by far the richest individual of America’s gilded age).  There was a point in the 1970s when David’s brother Nelson was Governor of New York and then Vice President of the United States, and yet David was reputed to be more powerful and connected.

Sir Nicholas Winton (May 19, 1909 – July 1, 2015) was a swordsman, banker and stockbroker who rescued of 669 Jewish children, from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia by means of paperwork wizardry, networking, and money-raising.

Sam Shepard (November 5, 1943 – July 27, 2017) was a playwright and actor who applied the Beckett’s absurd style to themes of family, violence, and substance abuse and thus carved out a uniquely American theater style.

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Hugh Heffner (April 9, 1926 – September 27, 2017) was a controversial publisher whose magazine “Playboy” was famous for cultural articles, progressive editorials, and reproductive advice which challenged America’s puritanical mores.  The magazine was however more famous for lubricious pictures of naked women and espousing a hedonistic (sexist?) lifestyle.  This legacy, and the distasteful…extravagance…of Hugh Heffner’s private life made him a polarizing figure, but he must be mentioned (and honored) because of the debt which generation after generation of pre-internet era adolescent boys owe him.

Richard Francis Gordon Jr. (October 5, 1929 – November 6, 2017) was an American naval officer, chemist, and astronaut.  He is only one of 24 people to have flown to the moon (although he didn’t get to walk on it).  Later he helped design the space shuttle and served as Executive Vice President of the New Orleans Saints.

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Bruce McCandless II, (June 8, 1937 – December 21, 2017) was a U.S. Navy officer, pilot, and NASA astronaut who made the first untethered free flight in space.

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Wang Panyuan (c. 1908 – December 22nd, 2017) was a famous Chinese/Taiwanese painter who brought together classical Chinese painting with expressionism.

 

 

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Mascots are fascinating. They have many of the biographic features of actual people (or at least of celebrities) glommed together with some of the endearing qualities of animals or natural entities…and yet they are completely ersatz. Teams of marketers, advertising executives, and other suchlike sharkish folk invent mascots as tools to manipulate us for their own ends. The results of this unholy nexus can often result in a bizarre plunge into the uncanny. As an example, let’s look at the deeply disconcerting career of “Mac Tonight” the crooning moon from the late eighties who (which?) attempted to sell McDonald’s to baby boomers as a good option for a dinner restaurant.
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Mac Tonight was made to cash in on 50s music nostalgia among Baby Boomers. He had a human body with a stylized moon head (with an elongated chin and overhanging forehead). A glasses-wearing musician, Mac sat at a piano on a cloud and played a bowdlerized version of “Mack the Knife” in which the original murder-themed lyrics were replaced with lyrics about, um, going to dinner at a fast food restaurant previously targeted mainly at children. Mac’s appearance was meant to distance him from Ronald, Grimace, Hamburgler, et al. and yet he also shared an obvious leitmotif with them. Because of a branding crossover, Mac somehow got tied to Nascar. Yet in 1989, Mac’s career was nipped in the bud by a lawsuit from the estate of Bobby Darin, the original composer of “Mack the Knife.” Although Bobby Darin himself originally took the concept and the music from a Brecht play about a footpad that raped and murdered people, Darin somehow toned down the dark gestic drama into smooth uptempo jazz. His heirs convincingly made this argument to a court and McDonald’s didn’t want to pay royalties.
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This should have been the end of Mac Tonight: he was obviously crafted wrongly from the very beginning (just look at his nightmarish features which evoke some sort of doofy demon from a Fred Savage movie) and yet Mac crawled back from corporate America’s dustbin. In 2007, a white supremacist named “farkle” used an online meme site to relaunch Mac as “Moon Man” a racist figurehead who rapped and danced and gave hate-speeches crafted with that creepy robotic text-to-speech software. In today’s increasingly debased political culture, Moon Man now has a steady gig endorsing the Ku Klux Klan, the president, police brutality, and violence against the LGBT community. He would probably easily win a house seat in Montana if he decided to run (or if he were, you know, real, in any way whatsoever).
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I am a space enthusiast and my middle name is “Mack”. Plus I like McDonald’s and came of age in the 80s, however Mac Tonight has always been distasteful to me (even before his off-brand second career as a goddamned white supremacist icon). Somehow the cartoonish fixed grin does not capture the beauty of the moon or the glamor of the post-war era in my heart. Yet equally obviously, Mac Tonight has something…some element that appeals to all sorts of people. After Mac’s launch “a 1987 survey by Ad Watch found that the number of consumers who recalled McDonald’s advertising before any other doubled from the previous month, and was higher than any company since the New Coke launch in 1985.” Was it Darin’s song? Was it love of astronomy or burgers? Were there elements of his sinister later career already present? I have no idea. Can anybody explain this or is the sheer randomness of this story the true source of Mac’s nocturnal power?
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One of the smaller moons in the Saturn system is Daphnis, a little 8 km (5 mile) irregular satellite which orbits the gas giant within the outer rings of the planet (although I guess really the famous rings themselves are composed of innumerable “moonlets”).  Daphnis, which has the irregular shape of a potato, orbits Saturn in a 42-kilometer (26 mile) wide belt in the rings—the Keeler Gap.  The moon is responsible for clearing this narrow track, and it is felt that by studying this interaction we may learn about accretion and the enigmatic happenings of the early solar system (when more things looked like Saturn). Here is a picture from NASA’s Cassini probe which was released yesterday which shows little Daphnis producing waves in the Keeler belt.  What a remarkable image!   I need to post more Cassini pictures here. They fill the heart with wonder and give us a chance to get off-planet for a little breather.

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Since the moon does not orbit the Earth in a perfect circle, the perigee (the closest point that the moon comes in relation to the planet) changes from year to year.  Tonight (November 14, 2016) marks the largest “supermoon” seen in six decades.  The moon will not appear so large in the sky again until November 25, 2034.

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According to ancient Algonquin lore, the full moons of autumn had various sacred names (well, at least according to the Farmer’s Almanac).  The full August moon was the “Sturgeon Moon” because the great fish came together to mate at that time.  Likewise, the September full moon occurred when the maize ripened and was thus called “the Corn Moon”.  After the harvest, when the weather was perfect for hunting, the October full moon was “the Hunter’s Moon”.  The full moon of November was known as the Beaver Moon, since it was an ideal time to trap beaver, which were out and about putting their affairs in order before winter (indeed the industrious rodents were nearly exterminated by trappers—but that is another story).

Tonight’s full moon is thus the Beaver Super Moon.  You should go out and appreciate it!   For who knows what the future will hold?  There may be clouds on the night of November 25, 2034 or maybe you will be on a floating Venus colony with me. Maybe cruel Empress Ivanna will have you chained up and working underground, mining the last seams of coal to feed the Earth’s final sputtering machines.  Maybe you will just be busy sending pointless administrative files to people.

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Enjoy the Beaver Super Moon! Then later this week, in honor of the season, we will get back to talking about turkeys!

The North Pole of Enceladus during the October 30th, 2015 Cassini Flyby (NASA/ESA/ASI)

The North Pole of Enceladus during the October 30th, 2015 Cassini Flyby (NASA/ESA/ASI)

Since 2004, the Cassini spacecraft has been in orbit around Saturn. The robot probe (a joint effort of NASA, ESA, and the Italian space agency) received the most press when it launched a flying saucer lander onto Saturn’s planet-like moon Titan, but it is still out there doing amazing work. Last week, while I was busy writing about Halloween themes, the probe made its closest pass yet to Saturn’s ice moon, Enceladus. Enceladus is only 500 kilometers in diameter and it is coated in ice, but it is of great interest to scientists because ice plumes venting from the moon’s south pole seem to indicate a large polar subsurface ocean of liquid water. Warmed above freezing by tidal flux, this ocean beneath the ice probably has a thickness of around 10 km.

View of Enceladus’ south pole geyser, backlit by Saturn

View of Enceladus’ south pole geyser, backlit by Saturn

On October 30th, Cassini flew by the icy moon at the dangerously close distance of 30 kilometers (18.6 miles). The probe was directly above the south pole of Enceladus and it collected a little flake of ice to analyze (which strikes me as incredibly amazing and beautiful). It will take some time for the ship’s devices to assay the drop of water from an alien ocean, but Cassini also snapped some photos which we already have. These are taken from point blank range above the south pole. The ocean is down there beneath the scratches and scars. What is the nature of this icy ocean? How long has it been there? Could it possibly harbor life?

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