Day by Day

Thursday, March 09, 2006

What's wrong with this picture?

Welcome to Enceladus (EN sell odd us). It's a 300 mile diameter moon orbiting Saturn and the brightest planetary body in the solar system. That's because it is completely covered with snow. And not just some cruddy Vermont refreeze. This is fresh, clean, highly reflective powder.

Today the media, new and old, was flooded with headlines from JPL announcing that Cassini had discovered "Potential Liquid Water" on Enceladus. They had a breathless podcast. Drudge linked it. Rush chatted it up. Glenny thought it was "very cool." Although I was exposed to a number of different types of water as a chemist (heavy-, distilled-, waste-, gaseous-, etc.), I never discovered any potential-water. But that's not the worst of it.

You see, the image above was made in 1982 by Voyager 2. That's 24 year old news. At that time, NASA knew that Enceladus was spewing snow. They knew from the huge linear fissures that it was geologically active. They knew that another moon named Dione perturbed its orbit, subjecting it to tidal movement. They knew these tides were causing elastic deformation in the ice pack. And internal heating. And they figured it was probably melting some of that ice.

So where's the news? It's right

In the spring of 2008, scientists will get another chance to look at Enceladus when Cassini flies within 350 kilometers (approximately 220 miles), but much work remains after Cassini's four-year prime mission is over.

Enceladus has just become an anti-discovery, welfare entitlement for an army of aeronautical engineers, planetary scientists, and < hirp > astro-biologists. This was a great mission, but it's time to move on before they start making the Shuttle Program look good.

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