Look at the glorious rings of Saturn: flat, elliptical plates in mauve and green, like over-the-top 1970s dishware. They look like pale vinyl LPs or auto racetracks or circles of stadium seating. They’re ovoid single brushstrokes of contrasting paint.
In the photos sent back to Earth by the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft this week, these rings are the best, the most spectacular rings in the history of planetary circular devices.
Don’t get me started on moons.
The Trump-style superlatives would keep spurting.
And what do we see there just between the rings?
It’s drab and tiny. It’s very . . . dotty.
The Cassini, an orbiter-probe that looks like a golden bee wearing a gray radar hat, is taking an Earth selfie from 1.5 billion km. away.
We don’t photograph well.
The Cassini has been on this mission since Oct. 15, 1997 — Princess Diana’s death is all I recall of that distant year — but we were young then, and full of hope that this earnest baby bug would fly past Venus twice, nose around Earth and Jupiter and arrive at Saturn in seven years and study all things bright and promising.
Humans working in harmony — a coalition of three space agencies and 17 nations — hoped the Cassini would still be of interest to other humans in 2017.
As it turns out, they were right.
But the reasons are tarnished.
Face it, space missions aren’t done for pure science; they have capitalist aims, one of them being to find a planet where humans have even the faintest shot at starting up again because we’ve wrecked our own home.
Earth used to be a blue ball of wonder; now it’s filthy, stormy, baking, melting, gasping for groundwater, and a battleground for the nations who like blowing things up real good.
If you doubt this, ask Naomi Klein.
If Earth were a building it would be a shotgun shack. If it were a state of mind, it would be a panic attack.
Are we proud of that?
I have been reading about living conditions in medieval and Elizabethan England, I suspect in a subconscious effort to take comfort in modern civilization. (We all cope with Trump in our own way.)
As it turns out, the Middle Ages weren’t so bad. Survival depended on that year’s crop, which kept most people too busy with the growing and storing of food to make mischief. Effective medicine was non-existent. For a throat abscess, “take a fat cat, flay it well and draw out the guts. Take the grease of a hedgehog, the fat of a bear, resins and virgin wax and stuff the cat with it. Then roast the cat and gather the dripping and anoint the sufferer.” I hope they didn’t mean internally.
Fatal illness was the great trauma of the 14th century. There were three waves of plague, killing five to 10 per cent of the population early, 30 to 40 per cent by mid-century, and another 15 to 25 per cent by the end. There were five million people in England in 1300, but not again until the 1630s, writes historian Ian Mortimer.
If climate change does this to us — it is possible — it will have been worse than the Black Death because it was self-inflicted. (No one knew what caused the plague.)
The Elizabethans were extremely cruel to animals, somewhat less so to humans. But so are we now: the Americans bomb almost as a reflex, criminals are executed, beheading is back, Elizabethan tortures return, animals suffer en masse, not like the individual bear-baitings of Shakespeare’s era. It’s not as if Daesh (also known as Islamic State or ISIS) has come up with new cruelties.
Given the technology that humans created for comfort and ease, we should be better than the Elizabethans.
We are worse.
We need another planetary teardown.
Here’s a gift from the loyal Cassini-Huygens, our international pet. It found the moons of Saturn and photographed dozens “shaped like a sweet potato (Prometheus), a regular potato (Pandora), a meatball (Janus), and even a sponge (Hyperion). Some have a gnarled, irregular shape and texture like a dirty ice-ball (Epimetheus)” as its website describes them.
But the best is stylish Enceladus, a moon of brightest white with a salty plume.
Only 500 km. in diameter, it reflects almost all sunlight that strikes it. It’s the Oslo Opera House of space.
Ice boulders the size of houses sit on its surface. Oh yes, it is cold, but some areas are less cold.
Scientists think there is a subsurface ocean in Enceladus. This sounds promising. Warm jets are travelling up through the ice cracks, they say. Is there not some way to move to Enceladus and sit in its planetary bath? Make haste, humanity!
Of course getting there wouldn’t just be difficult, it would be an obstacle course. Hundreds of thousands of pieces of lethal space junk surround Earth now, each bit speeding at 40,000 km/h and a constant threat to the International Space Station. The Washington Post reports that India just launched 104 tiny satellites into space.
There are thousands to come from every nation.
It’s like landfill out there.
Even if humans made it to Enceladus, we’d wreck it. A thousand years later, someone would toast a cheese sandwich on a smart plate in the tub and melt the place.
Nature never did betray the heart that loved her.
We’d love Enceladus the way we loved our Earth.
Our love would assassinate.