Emily LakdawallaAug 22, 2012

Saturn's still there

This week, a Mars geophysical lander was selected as the next NASA mission (yay), chosen over the other options of a comet lander or a Titan boat (boo). I like InSIGHT and am thrilled that we will finally be sending a seismometer to another planet. But I'm sad, even mournful, too, for the non-selections of CHopper and TiME. I knew more about TiME than CHopper, so I'm sadder about that one.

Opportunities to explore the outer planets are quite rare, because they depend on chance alignments of (usually) two inner planets with the target outer one to set up gravity assists. While InSIGHT could've been flown on a future Mars launch opportunity, 26 or 52 or 78 months from now, TiME (the Titan boat) cannot.

Surely one day we'll send a mission to explore Titan's lakes. But our current expert Titan scientists will be retired (or worse) before that happens.

Cassini's still there at Saturn, still returning breathtaking images like the one below, taken the day before yesterday. Who knows when the next emissary from Earth will visit there. Is Saturn still pretty if there's no human -- or spacecraft serving as an avatar of a human -- there to see it?

Saturn on August 20, 2012
Saturn on August 20, 2012 Cassini captured the images used to make this color composite of Saturn on 20 August 2012. Cassini was on the southern side of the ring plane with the Sun in the north, so the opaque B ring appears very dark while the transparent A and C rings are lighter. The rings cast shadows on Saturn's southern hemisphere.Image: NASA / JPL-Caltech / SSI / Emily Lakdawalla

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