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Enceladus, Dr. Carolyn Porco, and the Power of the Internet

"We have found an environment that is potentially suitable for living organisms."
--Carolyn Porco, getting the Quotation of the Day in today's New York Times

If any of you have been following space news, you know that yesterday NASA announced that the Cassini space probe had discovered potential liquid water on Enceladus, one of the moons of Saturn. The images of Enceladus show "icy jets and towering plumes," which seem to indicate pockets of liquid water just a few tens of meters below the surface. Enceladus now joins a very exclusive club of solar system bodies that have currently active volcanic activity: Io, Triton, and of course, Earth.

The discovery is a major boon for the good folks at the Cassini Imaging Central Laboratory of Operations. The team leader is a planetary scientist named Dr. Carolyn Porco. Now, this may seem strange to anyone who doesn't know me, but I'm actually a big fan of Dr. Porco and her work. I grew up with the Voyager spacecraft discoveries, and I remember watching Dr. Porco on Nova and various news programs talking about their discoveries. Dr. Porco was a member of the imaging team when Voyager flew past Saturn, and she discovered the connection between the spokes of the rings of Saturn and the planet's magnetic field. She continued to work on the Voyager program as the spacecraft flew by Uranus and Neptune. About half a year after the Voyager program ended, in 1990, she was appointed leader of the Cassini imagining team.

(As an aside, think about the time scales for space science research. The Cassini mission didn't launch until 1997, and didn't reach Saturn until 2004. Can you imagine working for fourteen years on one project that could go wrong at any moment? The mind boggles.)

Throughout the 1990s, whenever I taught Astronomy to my students, I always showed the old Nova episodes about the planets, the ones I myself had thrilled to. I did my best to get across the world's excitement at these discoveries. It was sometimes hard, as the students were too young to remember them. In some cases, the students hadn't even been born yet. But I think I managed.

A little less than two years ago, on Wednesday, April 14, 2004, gnomi and I went to hear Dr. Carolyn Porco speak at the Museum of Science in Boston. I mentioned that we were going, but I never got around to blogging about the speech itself. She spoke about Cassini, of course, and its impending arrival at Saturn. As before, I was impressed by how dynamic she was when she spoke about her field of planetary science.

After her talk, Nomi and I approached her, and I introduced myself as a fan of hers. I'm glad to say she took the statement with equanimity. It's odd, but even though she's a planetary scientist, she does have a fan base, small but intense. She herself hasn't written any books yet (and I'm hoping she will), but she graciously autographed my copy of Lifting Titan's Veil: Exploring the Giant Moon of Saturn by Ralph Lorenz and Jacqueline Mitton (Cambridge University Press) at the beginning of the chapter about the Huygens probe. I thanked her for all her work, told her I had used her story to inspire students of mine, both male and female, to enter science, and wished her the best of luck with Cassini.

And now we get to the power of the Internet. Last night, after I heard the news about Enceladus, I emailed Dr. Porco and congratulated her on their remarkable discovery. Within minutes, she had replied with a brief thank you and answered my question about whether or not she had been the scientist who also discovered the geysers on Triton. (She wasn't, but she had been part of the team.) It took me a few minutes to realize once more what an amazing world we live in, that I, someone with no professional connection to NASA, could email the head of a NASA program my congratulations, and that she would actually receive it.

According to the Cassini Mission FAQ, the program has a total cost of $3.26 billion, with a U.S. contribution of $2.6 billion. Spread over the years of the program, it breaks down to about sixty cents per every American each tax year, if my calculations are correct. That's nine bucks I am delighted to have given over to the federal government in taxes, and I hope you are too.

Congratulations once more to Dr. Porco and the entire Cassini team. You have expanded our horizons yet again.

Comments

Well put. And yes, nine bucks well spent, to say the least.
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