The Mysterious Island

Right now, there’s a story going around (again) about the magic islands on Titan. In brief, the Cassini orbiter can see the flat seas of Titan as reflective patches, and the rough terrain above sea level as bright busy spots. Cassini has seen some rough patches appear and disappear in the large lakes of Titan. Apparently the lakes are very deep, which means it’s unlikely to be an island that just barely breaks the surface from time to time (that would imply a very pointy mountain, and those get worn down). Now project scientists have ruled out the idea that they’re fogs or icebergs, which leaves the question open: What are they?

It makes you want to go there, doesn’t it? Take a look at the pictures in that article, and notice how much Titan looks like aerial maps of the Earth. In fact, in some ways, Titan is a LOT like the Earth: liquid on the surface, mountains, rivers, rain, an atmosphere full of Nitrogen, a similar atmospheric pressure… except Titan is much colder, the remainder of the atmosphere is methane, the lakes and rivers are liquid ethane and methane, the rocks are made of water (remember, it’s cold enough there that water is ALWAYS solid, so it functions as rocks do here on Earth, lava notwithstanding), and the gravity will be a bit less because Titan is 2% of the mass of the Earth. Imagine standing on that familiar-but-not world, seeing the rain fall on unfamiliar coasts. It’s the stuff of a thousand fantasies, made real and almost reachable. Let’s go!

The problem with going there is money. It routinely comes as a surprise, but NASA’s budget is quite small, around 0.5% of the national budget, while people routinely estimate NASA’s budget as high as 25%. Even during the Apollo moon landings, it was only 4%, and it’s been almost a constant dollar amount gradually outpaced by inflation since the early 90s. Every single mission has to compete for that tiny amount of money. Many try to be as cheap as possible, like the LCROSS mission, who shared a rocket with the Lunar Reconaissance Orbiter. Some more expensive ones, like the Curiosity rover (imagine sending THAT to Titan… the redesigning alone would cost billions) have to contend with being the only mission of their kind for decades.

If we send our mission to Titan, we can’t send one to Europa. We have to make annoyingly difficult choices, and then downsize some more. If we go there, we can’t send an orbiter and lander to Neptune to check out the windiest place in the solar system and the backwards moon Triton with its atmosphere, clouds, volcanoes, and bizarre cantaloupe terrain. Or we won’t go to Saturn’s two-faced moon Iapetus and land in the boundary region between the bright side and the dark side, or the equatorial ridge that makes Iapetus look like a giant walnut. Every mission like Rosetta (itself cost-constrained into using harpoons to anchor the lander onto the comet, which apparently didn’t work) means that another doesn’t fly. If missions get too large, financing a planetary sciences mission can interfere with a stellar astronomy mission, and vice versa. This happened to the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope at one point, before congressional maneuvering made it its own line item on the federal budget.

Basically, we need more money for science. It becomes maddening to watch people complaining about the cost of Rosetta, when we’ll spend more money on movies. I think that’s why the Rosetta people made the Ambition film, to try to put real science in a context where it can compete with fictional science. And then maybe people will want to give space organizations, like NASA and ESA, the money to actually pursue these fascinating questions.

I hope it works. Because, even though I work in stellar astronomy, I want to know the secret of the mysterious island.

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One Comment Add yours

  1. We need to do all of these things. We need orbiters around the ice giants and landers on Europa and so on. The issue is the political will to fund it, both in the US and Europe. And I guess that has always been the issue, even during the Cold War when international tensions created the illusion of that political committment to space science. Sigh…

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