Oh, my. Scientific American has just put up a gorgeous interactive tour of our solar system. Using photos and recordings from our various probes, data collected by astronomers, and breathtaking images by Hugo Award-winning artist Ron Miller, the tour imagines what future explorers of our solar system will see when they go to visit eight natural wonders.
One of those wonders is Herschel Crater on Mimas, the “Death Star Moon” of Saturn. I posted on Mimas and its massive crater in February, but at that time didn’t have access to an image like this! Miller’s rendition makes me want to strap on my low grav hiking boots. Climbing that bump in the center of the crater would take some time, though — as you may remember, the peak is nearly 6 kilometers (4 miles) above the crater floor. And to get there, you’d have to climb down the crater walls first, which stand 5 kilometers (3 miles) high. But then, all the best scenic wonders involve a little effort, don’t they?
Another fascinating part of the tour is the video of sunrise and sunset on Mercury. Due to Mercury’s highly elliptical orbit and the fact that it rotates three times for every two revolutions around the sun, a visitor to this planet would need 87 Earth days to witness one Mercurian day, and that day would seem very strange indeed. Exactly how strange depends on where the visitor stands. From the point at which the video is made, the sun would rise, grow smaller, grow larger, change direction, change direction again, shrink once more and finally set.
The other six wonders include the rings of Saturn, Jupiter’s Red Spot, Valles Marineris on Mars (which makes the Grand Canyon look like a crack in the sidewalk), the geysers of Enceladus, the geysers of Triton, and the Peaks of Eternal Light on our own moon. Is it wrong of me to feel envious of the future travelers who could actually take this tour?
In the meantime, we do have our imaginations, and an ever-increasing wealth of data from our scientific exploration. Which reminds me — the Cassini imaging team has just released several new images from last month’s Mimas flyby. Says Carolyn Porco, Imaging Team Leader, “After much deliberation, we have concluded: Mimas is NOT boring. Who knew?!”
Well, we did!
If you’d like to see the latest, head over to CICLOPS (Cassini Imaging Central Laboratory for OPerationS — the acronym is clearly science geek humor) and click away. There are some fantastic views of Mimas and Herschel Crater, including a crater closeup in 3-D. Got your red and blue glasses at home?
The image that is causing nerdgasms all over the world, however, isn’t a photo at all. It’s a thermal map put together with composite infrared spectrometer data.
As you can see from the top row of figures, the actual daytime temperatures of this moon didn’t look anything like what scientists expected. This has sent a whole bunch of astronomers scurrying back to their desks to figure out why the heck the temperature map would look like this.
The other reason they all scurried back to their desks was to open their email clients and tell the news to everyone they knew: “Pac-Man is on Mimas!” Look at the bottom right figure — it’s even eating a dot!
And now the nerds have all the ammunition they need to argue that video games do, in fact, have a direct link to future scientific achievement.