2/28/2008

What kind of a solar system will my kids know?


Late night surfing, and I came across an article on Discovery about how a group of Japanese scientists believe there's a planet about two-thirds the size of Earth floating around out on the far edge of the solar system.

As I'm reading this, there's another article that says Mercury has a tail made up of sodium atoms that is about a million miles long. There's a pretty astonishing picture out there.

This comes on the heels of all the discoveries being made about Titan (shown in false color at left), which might have more oil than the Earth. Pluto is no longer a planet, Mars has two active robots crawling across it, and Dr. Who is a hit again.

Okay, that last one may be in a slightly different category, but there's a connection. Excitement about one can spill over into the other. I get much more excited about what may lie out there in the universe if I can imagine some of the most far-fetched possibilities. In Britain, at least, 1/6th of the population tunes in to watch.

Will that translate, somehow, into a generation of people fantastically excited about our own solar system? I think it might, as we begin to look up and see potential resources out there, just beyond our grasp. What gets imagined doesn't sound so silly when you think much of the advanced technology we have today was made possible by people who could imagine another world?

There's no room in the mainstream media for sustained coverage about the way our conception of the solar system is being challenged. Our celestial home is becoming a lot less like Oakland. But, last week the US shot down a damaged spy satellite, and that grabbed all the headlines. Yet, the wonders of our solar system beckon us to look up, to aspire, to figure out a way to harness our imagination.

I showed my daughter Venus tonight and told her it was a hot place that the Russians tried to get to when they were the Soviet Union. I told her they landed a couple of things there, but they melted so fast they barely had any time to do much communication. There are also a lot of storms there, and the magnetic field is kind of funky.

I don't remember how much of that I "know" from my own education, how much is true, how much is false. There aren't good stories that I'm aware of about these probes. I'd like to read good fiction about what it was like to plot out these initial trips to our planets. I'm sure a lot of it is on Wikipedia, and that would be once place to start. Maybe I should write it. Maybe there's intrigue in there that would make great fiction. That would be a lot of fun.

I want to read more fiction like Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy, a well-written speculation of what might happen. Any thoughts?

I want to live in a country where school kids know more than I do about the latest science on all of this. For that to happen, we have to share our stories, what we know. It seems to me that among my generation, the explosion of the Challenger dampened a lot of enthusiasm about space exploration. That may mean the excitement of Apollo felt by the baby boomers turned into the apathy of Generation X, leaving the next two generations without a reason to care when these probes get out there. Couple that with a mainstream media that only seems to want to discuss space probes when they go tremendously wrong.

I could be wrong, but I know when I try to tell people about the new developments in solar system research, I get looked at funny.

I want to live in a country where people get excited about this stuff, even if it's just an intellectual exercise, imagining what other planets might be like, having to use whatever scientific tools are at your disposal to plot out the picture. That kind of mandate can lead to some fantastic new technology, perhaps.

I'll end this rambling post on a question: What do you think the image (that should) on the left is?

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