Bird brained

Saturnian travel literature

The Cassini space probe has entered the “Saturn planetary system” — the zone in which Saturn’s enormous field of gravity is so huge that it becomes a mini solar system, with a gazillion of its own moons. Scientists are most interested in the huge moon Titan, and NASA Cassini imaging expert Carolyn Porco has written a short essay describing Titan.

I kind of cracked up when I read it, because it’s superb example of a genre I like to call “astronomer travel literature”: Floridly metaphoric evocations of extraterrestrial destinations, which feel as though they’d been excerpted from a Fodor’s travel guide in the 23rd century:

Patchy methane clouds float several miles above the icy ground. In places, large, slow-moving droplets of methane mixed with other liquid organics fall to the surface in cold but gentle rains, cutting gullies, forming rivers and cataracts, carving canyons, and filling basins, craters and other surface depressions. Imagine Lake Michigan brimming with paint thinner.

Above the methane clouds and rain lies two hundred kilometers worth of globe-enveloping red smog, making the Titan nights starless and the days eerie dark, where high noon is as dim as deep Earth twilight. Over eons, smog particles have drifted downwards, growing as they fell, to coat the surface in a blanket of organic matter. On high, steep slopes, methane rains have washed away this sludge, revealing the bright bedrock of ice. Could Xanadu, the brightest feature on Titan, be a high, methane-washed, mountain range of ice?

Man alive, they actually call that outcropping “Xanadu”. I love NASA nerds.

(Thanks to Slashdot for this one!)

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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