The Humdrum Universe

Inner Solar SystemWhile reading through the morning headlines on my rss aggregator, I came across this heading on Space.com: Moon to Cross a Star – For the third time this year, the Moon will occult Antares. (For those of you who don’t know what occulting is in astronomical terms, it means that one stellar object will pass in front of the other and block its light). And I read that headline and new instantly why most people don’t give a frog’s arse about the unexplored vistas above us. Who the hell wants to bother about the third occulting of a non-descript little star (besides the astronomer/geeks among us who of course might know the difference between a Plossl and a Schmidt-Cassegrain, myself included). If you want to get people into space, to get people to look up at the heavens and say something else besides, “Wow, they’re really far away,” then you must inspire.

Years ago I pointed up at the sky and explained to a friend the basic premise of the universe, how it all exploded some 14 billion years ago, has been cooling and swirling ever since, forming stars and galaxies, and how each pinprick of light could swallow the earth thousands of times, and how their light takes thousands, sometimes millions of years to arrive at our eyes. And he said, “Makes you feel really small.” And for some reason this angered me, and I responded, “How does this make you feel small? In all this vastness, in all this swirling chaos, the universe still conspired to make you and me.” Now, of course, it didn’t come across as eloquent when I first said it (and we may have been inebriated as well), but I remember my friend still didn’t see it from my point of view.

Deep Impact Hits CometNow, this picture is what gets me excited: slamming a projectile into a comet travelling thousands of miles per hour just to see what nice particles get ejected from the mash. And I like to remind people as often as I can that we have not just one, but two rovers exploring Mars right now, each roaming for more than 18 months on a planet 40 million miles away. Try running your RC car for more than twenty minutes! Not to mention the Mars Odyssey, the Mars Global Surveyor, and the Mars Express, all orbiting Mars this very instant. We’ve got a probe called Cassini making rings around Saturn that sent its own probe deep into Titan. And I just love this animation of Cassini flying by Saturn’s moon, Hyperion. And all this is going on while I drink my coffee! The universe may be huge, but to me, that’s what makes it exciting, because that means there is that much more out there to explore.