Other Shores

When we were young, we looked up at the twinkling lights in the night sky and wondered. Most of them were immovable, fixed stars rising and setting in the same place every night as if pinned to the dome of the firmament. However, a very few of those lights were not so steady. Instead, they seemed to meander, moving perceptibly across the sky from night to night – sometimes even changing course and moving backwards for a time, as if in a spirit of play. We named these vagabond stars planets, after the Greek word planetes, which literally means “wanderer”.

For many long centuries, the nature of these wanderers was unknown to us. Our wise theologians advised us that they were no more than lights affixed to nested crystal spheres that rotated around us, placed as signs and portents so that we could marvel at the power of the cosmic Designer who framed them. Even the moon, closest to our own earth, was an orb of mystery whose ever-changing faces became synonymous with the unsettling and the strange.

But then we discovered how to grind glass to focus light, and distant rays streaming into our retinas brought illumination: the planets are not mere lights after all. They are places, whole worlds of their own, both like and unlike the Earth. They have mountains and valleys, craters and river channels, deserts and ice caps, and spectacular night skies of their own with rings, satellites, and one other wandering, blue star. It is true, our species has walked on the moon; we have taken our first tentative steps into that vast cosmic ocean that surrounds us. But there are other vistas that await us. Far from our humble yet beautiful world, there are other shores upon which no human being has ever set foot.

Yet where we have not traveled, our emissaries have gone before us: bright-eyed creatures with limbs of silver and gold, seeing into subtle bands of the spectrum we can only imagine. They hurtle unscathed through the vacuum of space, tireless through the long journey, until at last they reach their destination: an oasis appearing out of the void, a distant twinkle of light that swells into a vast new world. In obedience to the faint voices from their place of origin, our heralds swing into orbit around these distant shores, or descend to their surfaces. And there they have found magnificent beauty – landscapes of gorgeous desolation, of primordial power, of grand intricacy; landscapes that tell stories of an ancient history, a history that passed countless eons unregarded and unknown – until now. And what our messengers see, they report back to their makers.

At right is a magnificent image of Saturn, from high above the ringed planet’s north pole, taken on January 19 by the Cassini spacecraft now in orbit around that world. This is a natural-color view: if a human being was in this orbit, they would see the same image that Cassini saw. So fantastically perfect as to be almost unreal, Saturn sits half in sunlight and half in darkness, casting a vast shadow across the plane of its majestic rings. Stark and geometric in its clarity, the image makes it almost too easy to forget that this is not a mere model, but a vast world of its own, a gas giant larger than hundreds of Earths. Only Cassini’s celestial perspective, like a god looking down from on high – this picture was taken from a distance of three-quarters of a million miles – renders Saturn’s alien beauty as comprehensible as it is.

The Cassini mission has glimpsed other wonders as well. It took seven years of travel through the void for the probe to reach Saturn – a stark reminder of how enormous the distances are that separate us from even the nearest fellow worlds – but there were chances to survey other shores along the way.

At left is a true-color mosaic of the planet Jupiter, taken in December 2000. The gas giant is a world of clouds, banded with swirls of weather in intricate patterns of turbulence, wreathing and diffusing like smoke in air or colorful ink in a glass of milk. In the southern hemisphere, the vast cyclonic storm system called the Great Red Spot continues to roil and churn the atmosphere, as it has been doing since it was first observed by the astronomer Giovanni Cassini, in whose honor the current mission is named, in the 1600s.

When it comes to the truly cosmic, it is all but impossible for a limited human being to grasp the sense of scale. However, it may help to see how large the Earth is in comparison. In comparison to regal Jupiter, all the distant lands and mighty seas where Earth’s most famous explorers dared to venture are but a ripple in an unimaginably more enormous ocean of atmosphere. Though Jupiter has no solid surface on which to tread, a traveler who could soar through its upper reaches could spend a thousand human lifetimes and never see more than a tiny fraction of the stunning vistas that must surely await there.


Above: An image of Titan from Cassini. Dense clouds hide the planet’s surface.

But Jupiter and Saturn, for all their grandeur and their beauty, were not the Cassini probe’s only destinations. The ringed planet has a moon, named Titan – a world of unfathomable mystery, one that may even hold the keys to understanding the origin of life on our own blue planet.

Titan is the only moon in the solar system with a substantial atmosphere, one that is actually denser than Earth’s. But a dense orange haze clouds Titan’s atmosphere and hides its surface from view, and until recently we had no idea what lay beneath the clouds. There have been tantalizing hints. Based on spectroscopic observations and laboratory experiments similar to the famous Miller-Urey experiment, the late Carl Sagan concluded that Titan’s haze might be made of a muddy mixture of organic compounds called tholins – possible building blocks of life – that were constantly raining down on the moon’s surface like manna falling from heaven.

It has long been conjectured that lakes of liquid methane and ethane might exist on Titan’s frigid surface, and that these hydrocarbon lakes could be the source of the Titanian tholins. Evaporating and rising into the atmosphere, these simple compounds would be broken down by ultraviolet radiation from the Sun, recombining into the more complex organic molecules that shroud the surface in haze. But this idea is mere speculation no longer. Cassini’s radar can pierce the clouds of Titan, and several weeks ago, it returned this false-color image of dark, smooth patches of liquid on the moon’s rough surface – the long-hypothesized hydrocarbon lakes, glimpsed at last.

But we have done more than just examine Titan from orbit. The Cassini spacecraft carried a lander, Huygens, which parachuted down to the moon’s surface to report back on what it found. Here is one of the images it returned, a true example of an almost unimaginably distant shore:


Above: An image of Mars taken by Viking 1. In the foreground, the vast Valles Marineris canyon system slices across the surface of the planet.

Not every shore we visit is as exotic as ringed Saturn or cloud-shrouded Titan. Our planetary neighbor Mars, compared to these strange and distant worlds, is practically a close friend, and we know it with familiarity befitting that designation. Both on the surface and from orbit, our robotic servants have mapped and explored Mars, peeling back the eons of its history, and uncovering stunning evidence of its past. Too small for its gravity to hold an atmosphere as dense as our own, Mars is now a dry, freezing desert, with an ethereally thin atmosphere and regular planet-wide dust storms. But we now know that it once had a warm, clement past complete with liquid running water, the prerequisite for all life as we know it. Astonishingly, Mars’ polar ice caps contain enough water to flood the entire planet to a depth of over thirty feet, and its surface bears signs of past reworking by water on a colossal scale. And though we have not yet found evidence of life on Mars, neither have we ruled out the possibility that it may still exist beneath the planet’s rusty soil.

Below is an image of the striking Martian surface feature known as Victoria Crater, the half-mile-wide scar of some ancient impact, taken from space by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter:

And here is an image of Victoria Crater’s rim from the surface, courtesy of the robotic rover Opportunity that is now exploring it:

Opportunity’s twin, Spirit, has not been slumbering either. Here is Spirit’s current view, the McMurdo Panorama, a landscape of desolation that nevertheless seems strikingly Earthlike:

Despite its loneliness, Mars can present scenes of astonishing beauty. On occasion, Spirit has even had the chance to pause from its scientific work and simply admire a sunset, so familiar and yet so strange, such as this one taken at Gusev Crater from April 2005:

Images like this are a much-needed reminder that the Earth is not the only place in the cosmos. Though the Earth is all we know, and sometimes this leads us to myopically imagine it is all there is, there is a whole universe of landscapes awaiting us. Our solar system alone contains a multitude of gorgeous and fantastic scenes which no human was ever privileged to see – until now.

In a very real sense, everyone alive today is an explorer on a scale more profound than the seafarers of bygone ages ever conceived of. Not with our bodies, but with our eyes and minds we have traveled forth to begin exploration of the cosmos. Images like this should teach us a valuable lesson in humility, a reminder that we are not the center of the universe. Yet at the same time, they should rightfully fill us with awe and wonder. There are wholly new worlds awaiting our study, places stranger and yet more beautiful than we could have imagined. How can such a revelation not fill us with joy?

(All images in this post courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech.)

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://inthenuts.blogspot.com King Aardvark

    I’ve had that Jupiter picture as my wallpaper at work for the past year. I may replace it with that Mars pic though; very cool.

  • http://inthenuts.blogspot.com King Aardvark

    I’ve had that Jupiter picture as my wallpaper at work for the past year. I may replace it with that Mars pic though; very cool.

  • http://none John Nernoff III M.D.

    Humans are prone to project their own parochial conceits onto the universe. We have kings. Therefore the whole Universe has to have a king or kings. We have creators of various items – food, homes and most importantly weapons of all imaginable types by which we need to kill “enemies.” Since we have creators, the Universe has got to have a creator. All these extrapolations of human activity involve some sort of being called “God” (thousands of names attached to such, depending on the culture). The explanation of religion involves very little more in the way of analysis. Humans just like to reflexively attribute their own activities, thoughts, meanings and requirements to their environments out of self-importance and arrogance. We are the center of the Universe.

  • http://none John Nernoff III M.D.

    Humans are prone to project their own parochial conceits onto the universe. We have kings. Therefore the whole Universe has to have a king or kings. We have creators of various items – food, homes and most importantly weapons of all imaginable types by which we need to kill “enemies.” Since we have creators, the Universe has got to have a creator. All these extrapolations of human activity involve some sort of being called “God” (thousands of names attached to such, depending on the culture). The explanation of religion involves very little more in the way of analysis. Humans just like to reflexively attribute their own activities, thoughts, meanings and requirements to their environments out of self-importance and arrogance. We are the center of the Universe.

  • http://www.myspace.com/stevebel a sinking ship

    There such myriad revelations that await us humans, if only we may gather the courage and conviction to reach out to the cosmos go to it. The earth and humanity is no more the center stone in the crown of the galaxy than a particular manhole cover is in the city of New York. But human arrogance would have the tale told differently. If ever we spread our feet to places previously unchartered and unknown within the galaxy, we humans will have to stop drinking the elixer of hate and superstition that brings us ever so inaffably closer to extinction.

  • http://www.myspace.com/stevebel a sinking ship

    There such myriad revelations that await us humans, if only we may gather the courage and conviction to reach out to the cosmos go to it. The earth and humanity is no more the center stone in the crown of the galaxy than a particular manhole cover is in the city of New York. But human arrogance would have the tale told differently. If ever we spread our feet to places previously unchartered and unknown within the galaxy, we humans will have to stop drinking the elixer of hate and superstition that brings us ever so inaffably closer to extinction.

  • Darren

    I find the Mars landers Spirit and Opportunity and awesome story, the hitherto crowning glory of human exploration and something of which I am very proud and honoured to see.

    Ok, I can’t hold it in any longer: I am one of those atheists that has never believed in any god or the silly creation stories (they just make no sense), so I am utterly bewildered that people in this day and age can still believe the arrogant, human-centric nonsense spouted in so-called holy texts. This self-deception by the faithful mystifies me; it’s about time that religion admits that it is not best placed to explain the nature of the universe and instead concentrate on what it’s core mission should be: comforting the fearful.

    We should be rightly proud of what we have achieved and discovered using science as our tools, and this is just the beginning of our journey. Religion is outdated and no longer serves a useful purpose in the explication of the universe in which we are so lucky to find ourselves. Indeed, it now stands as an obstacle to human progress.

  • Darren

    I find the Mars landers Spirit and Opportunity and awesome story, the hitherto crowning glory of human exploration and something of which I am very proud and honoured to see.

    Ok, I can’t hold it in any longer: I am one of those atheists that has never believed in any god or the silly creation stories (they just make no sense), so I am utterly bewildered that people in this day and age can still believe the arrogant, human-centric nonsense spouted in so-called holy texts. This self-deception by the faithful mystifies me; it’s about time that religion admits that it is not best placed to explain the nature of the universe and instead concentrate on what it’s core mission should be: comforting the fearful.

    We should be rightly proud of what we have achieved and discovered using science as our tools, and this is just the beginning of our journey. Religion is outdated and no longer serves a useful purpose in the explication of the universe in which we are so lucky to find ourselves. Indeed, it now stands as an obstacle to human progress.

  • MKateS

    Wow, this entry makes me feel so young again! Reading this has so elevated my spirit. I know this is how Carl Sagan must have spent his life feeling. Thanks!

  • terrence

    Another eloquent post. For any and all who haven’t read it on this same topic, do a Google for “The Theologian’s Nightmare” by Bertrand Russell.

  • terrence

    Another eloquent post. For any and all who haven’t read it on this same topic, do a Google for “The Theologian’s Nightmare” by Bertrand Russell.

  • L.Nielsen

    Fantastic post. When I see such pictures and hear the tales told by our explorers (Humans or robots) I feel so awed. The universe is beautiful!

    I too have a dream (thanks Martin) about a world where every human being sees such stunning images, hears the tales and feels the greatness of the univers and all the knowledge we have and don’t have about this magnificient birthplace of ours. A world where people feel humility and greatness for the real world we live in and do not feel the need to believe in magical fairies in the sky or fall for the words of astrologers, psychics and missionaries. Then perhaps humankind can grow up. The world of today is a kindergarten.

  • L.Nielsen

    Fantastic post. When I see such pictures and hear the tales told by our explorers (Humans or robots) I feel so awed. The universe is beautiful!

    I too have a dream (thanks Martin) about a world where every human being sees such stunning images, hears the tales and feels the greatness of the univers and all the knowledge we have and don’t have about this magnificient birthplace of ours. A world where people feel humility and greatness for the real world we live in and do not feel the need to believe in magical fairies in the sky or fall for the words of astrologers, psychics and missionaries. Then perhaps humankind can grow up. The world of today is a kindergarten.

  • http://atheisthought.blogspot.com Paul

    Thank you so much. Your eloquence and selection of spendid images in this post has made quite an impression. If you know my blog, you’ll know I’ve tried, but this one is right up with the best.

    Carl Sagan would be proud.

  • http://atheisthought.blogspot.com Paul

    Thank you so much. Your eloquence and selection of spendid images in this post has made quite an impression. If you know my blog, you’ll know I’ve tried, but this one is right up with the best.

    Carl Sagan would be proud.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    Thank you, all. If anyone wants to use these images as wallpaper, larger versions are available (as well as many others) at the JPL website. Click on “Images” on the menu bar at the top.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    Thank you, all. If anyone wants to use these images as wallpaper, larger versions are available (as well as many others) at the JPL website. Click on “Images” on the menu bar at the top.

  • Samantha

    fantastic universe an god made it all. Human beings can do nothing!! only god can create such beautiful places in the whole universe.

    The sunset of mars is something realy beautiful.To be there and see it with my own eyes would be great.

    such revelations fill me with joy.

    Thanks.

  • Tom

    Samantha, perhaps you should try reading the Russell story mentioned earlier in the thread.

  • Tom

    Samantha, perhaps you should try reading the Russell story mentioned earlier in the thread.

  • Adele

    Samantha -

    I once felt the same way you do – but I understand now that the evidence against the existence of any higher, sentient being is overwhelmingly greater than that in favor of the existence of said sentient being. Part of the beauty of the universe lies in the awe I as an atheist feel when I consider the way in which it was created – and the swirling dust and gas of distant nebulas are infinately more beautiful than any Garden of Eden. The more one examines the scientific hypotheses surrounding the universe, the more beauty one can find in everyday life and in these images of the universe we are lucky enough to inhabit. It is my feeling that proof of the existence of the God of which you speak – that proof that all of this beauty came solely from the mind of one being, regardless of their omnipotence, omniscience, or benevolence – would only cheapen the wonder that can be found in considering the greater world around us.

    Were I a Christian, I would pray that you could find beauty in this the way I do. As it is, I feel you are missing out on something wonderful – but I respect your decision and applaud you for your position so long as it does not threaten the well-being or happiness of others.

    -Adele