Two tangentially related space items today -- one about Mars, the other Saturn, both from the ESA.
If you've paid any attention to space news over the past year, you know that NASA landed two rovers on Mars; these have been sending back fascinating images and data about the Martian geology and environment. If you have followed the news a bit more closely, you probably heard that the European Space Agency also sent a lander to Mars this year -- Beagle II, named after the ship that carried Darwin -- only to have it smack unceremoniously into the Martian surface. But it seems only real Areophiles know about Mars Express, the ESA orbiter that carried the ill-fated Beagle II. Mars Express continues to work just fine, thank you very much, and has been sending back some of the best color images of Mars I've ever seen, along with some potentially revolutionary data.
For some reason, the ESA just hasn't been trumpeting this mission, which is a real shame. Fortunately, getting access to interesting pictures from Mars Express just got a bit easier, as the ESA unveiled a clever Flash application for the Mars Express page -- a rotating Mars globe, with flags highlighting spots of interesting photos. This won't get you all of the Mars Express photos (although those are available), only some of the highlights. But as highlights, they're amazing -- the photos are super high-resolution and hauntingly beautiful (warning: 4096x4096 image, ~5MB -- thumbnail to the left).
Further out, the Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn, a collaboration between NASA and the ESA, is just about to undertake the most important step of its journey: launching the ESA-built Huygens probe to land on Saturn's moon Titan. In a little more than a day (as of this posting), Cassini will release Huygens, sending it on a three week trip to the solar system's second largest moon (only Ganymede, around Jupiter, is bigger -- Titan is larger than the planet Mercury, and nearly as big as Mars). This will be the first landing on any moon other than our own and the first landing attempted in the outer solar system. It will be tricky, as Huygens will be dropping through an atmosphere denser than that of Earth, and now known to be roiling with storms.
Titan's atmosphere is, like Earth's, mostly nitrogen, and is known to also contain methane and other organic molecules. Its composition is similar to that of the early Earth. While life on Titan would be less likely a find than on Mars or Europa (and Huygens isn't designed to look for it, anyway), Titan is definitely one of the most complex terrestrial (i.e., Earth-like) bodies in our solar system, and a good additional dataset for understanding how planetary environments function.
Occasional WorldChanging readers may wonder why we sometimes talk about space science, especially planetary science, here. The long answer is in an essay from earlier this year: Greens In Space. The short answer is that studying other terrestrial bodies really does help us better understand the geophysical and atmospheric processes underway on Earth. Planets comprise multiple complex, interconnected systems; trying to tease out the details with just a single data point is challenging, maybe impossible. Seeing what's happening on other planets helps us see what's common across worlds in our solar system and what's unique to Earth.
it is cool