Visit to a Large Planet

  • Share
  • Read Later

(2 of 9)

After only the most cursory study of Voyager's flood of data, scientists were staggered by a succession of discoveries. Many involved Saturn's rings, which until the recent finding of similar features around Uranus and Jupiter were thought to be unique. Before Voyager's visit only six Saturnian rings and a few gaps between them were known. Now there seem to be 1,000 rings or so. One of the so-called gaps may contain several dozen ringlets. Titan, the largest moon in the solar system, appears to be wrapped in a dense atmosphere of nitrogen vapors, rather than methane—the best guess before Voyager—and its surface may be awash in a cold sea of liquid nitrogen. Saturn's entourage of other satellites, until now no more than bright gleams in earthly telescopes, also proliferated—by three —to at least 15. Chunks of ice and rock perhaps dating back to the birth of the solar system 4.6 billion years ago, these moons emerged as distinctive and different, showing scars from the millennial pounding of meteorites and possibly comets, as well as cracks from their own version of earthquakes. One pair of little moons travel in the same orbit within the rings of Saturn. They look like broken teeth and may be remains of some relatively recent cosmic carnage: two halves of a larger satellite that split apart in collision with another celestial body.

The nation, indeed the world, seemed ready for a heavenly break in the news, for a chance to contemplate an event above and beyond politics and oil, wars and revolutions. It took nearly 1½ hours for the spacecraft's first data about the moment of closest approach to reach earth. But at planetariums from Washington, B.C., to Portland, Ore., "near encounter" shows attracted overflow crowds. In Edinburg, Texas, students erected their own satellite antenna to hear NASA's special Saturn broadcasts.

Other nations were watching closely. On Japanese television, astronomers and space specialists took turns filling the airwaves with learned commentary on Voyager's progress. In Britain, television stations broadcast a drumbeat of bulletins on the mission. London's Sunday Telegraph hailed the achievement as "the most spectacular piece of space exploration since men stepped foot on the moon."

After taking time out to watch the special coverage of the flyby on public television, President Carter telephoned his congratulations to the NASA team for their space spectacular. He also had some cheering news for the men and women of Caltech's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in the foothills near Pasadena, who designed the spacecraft and control its mission. They fear that U.S. ambitions in interplanetary space may be rapidly dwindling, but the President announced the inclusion of $40 million in start-up funding in the fiscal 1982 budget for VOIR. That is an acronym for the Venus Orbiting Imaging Radar mission, a new project that had been eagerly sought by J.P.L., along with an unmanned probe to intercept Halley's comet when it returns in 1986. So far the U.S. has refused to authorize the tantalizing mission to the comet. Said J.P.L. Director Bruce Murray after the President's announcement: "We can use the money."

  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. 3
  4. 4
  5. 5
  6. 6
  7. 7
  8. 8
  9. 9