December 8, 2013
Standing on a white plain of immense brilliance; shifting slightly and stepping almost imperceptivity backward, we gaze in dumbfounded bliss at the cracked and stretched orange sprinkled landscape. A strange blue-yellow binary entertains us directly above as a barely noticeable atmosphere throws a shallow haze over the ice-cold landscape. The surface is barren; dotted only by fissures of orange-white descending into dark blue and black chasms. Two weeks ago, this valley looked much different, but now, after the weekly shift, fresh geysers birthed forth and spewed crystal life into the somewhat vacant sky. It’s noon local time and we march forward while our Lander cools on the one bit of safe purchase we could find. A gas giant parent world breaks above a nearby outcropping to our right. You look there, stumble, mouth agape at the dark blue and turquoise wonder with raging winds of unknown velocity, striping you of the immortal words you had rehearsed for some many months our journey. You turn to me, wonder clearly evident on your face through your suits visor, and beckon me to stop the robotic drill rig I had just set free upon its work. We marvel together on that cold world, wonder at the great insignificance of our existence, substantiating all the great beauty and wonder that we are given at the moment of our birth. A tremor; a gravitational war erupts; I slip. You yell, calling to me as my footing frees itself. A queer, slow plunge plays out before my eyes, as my safety line stays slack. I find this odd at first, until I notice the anchor falling with me. I can hear you, yelling through the intercom, straining and swearing all the same. Its peaceful, however, with only the buzz of the air circulation system and, of course, your worried communiqués filling my helmet with a rather dizzying soundtrack to what I’ve become to accept as the moment of my death. I hit a newly frozen ice sheet and plunge completely through the thin blanket. Great darkness envelops me for a moment until my illumination system ignites three blue-white high intensity LEDs. The black water receives me with little objection as my decent slows by blind luck and Archimedes principle. Looks like I wasn’t going to die, at least not in the immediate future. You had silenced, well, maybe not, I couldn’t tell due to H2Os attenuation of electromagnetic radiation. In any event, I bent backward and swam slightly and gazed at the dim surface above me. The layer I had penetrated had already repaired itself. I knew that though I had neutral buoyancy at the moment, it would do me no good if I couldn’t break through the surface ice quickly before the layers get to great, and my death would come in short time. I released the safety line and anchor and immediately began an ascent to the darkening layer of ice above me. I violently force the drill tool I had on my belt into the layer above. Solid. I hit it again. Nothing. A flare? I tried to burn the ice, nearly blinding me with the blue flame and bubbling mass. I was scared I might torch the suit, ending it all rather quickly in this freezing darkness. No good. Not enough heat. I was trapped. I dropped the flare and pounded again at the ice. Hacked at it with my tools. Nothing was doing much good. I suppose this was it. I looked down into the darkness and saw the flare in the distance, falling, slowly falling, falling, stopped. The dark surface erupts. Near blinding iridescent some things moving in the night; flickers of unknown origins and strange glowing pearl like creatures moving rapidly. Light, beautiful light illuminating the dark and death I felt so close to my heart. Things swam around me, green, red, blue-white marvels of nature. Something dark shoots past me, again. Over there! Beneath me! Again to my right! Amazed, I looked on. Then it came, the thing I can only say was a demi-god of this world. At first I felt it, BHAM! A forced click, ultrasonic, then near audible. Thud; a shockwave hits me in the chest. A monster of the depths rose up from some unknown chamber. All movement and all light vanished. I was alone once again. I waited for maybe five minutes then decided to light another flare. Before me was a thing I cannot describe. Giant indeed and once my flare had ignited, the monster of a thing erupted into a chorus of color. Beautiful beyond anything I have ever seen. It rose, flashing blue-green blue-white and orange. It smashed through the frozen surface, carrying me through the breach in its wake. I was thrown up and some feet from the creature. I lay, motionless, breathing heavy, your shouts and queries again ringing in my ear. But I don’t answer. I lay there on my back, staring up into the beautiful black sky; two strange dance partners entertaining this arm of the galaxy, so many distant light years from home. I turn my head to look upon the great god of the watery depths and see only quickly freezing water. It had returned to its world. I answer you, assure you of my health and am forever changed.
In 2016, The Planetary Society’s LightSail program will take the technology a step further.