Does anyone anymore sit up until the early hours of the morning as I did when Giotto encountered Halley, being amazed at Uranus' bizarre collection of moons, fascinated with the existence of nitrogen geysers on Triton, volcanoes on Io; does anyone (other than scientists working at NASA, ESA, JAXA etc) get overly excited these days at pictures from Mercury, Vesta etc?
Does anyone dream of what the Ice Giants explorer might have found at Uranus, or what creatures might live under the icy crust of Europa's ocean?
I remember (pre internet days) desperately waiting for pictures of Neptune, Triton, Miranda, Titan etc to appear in newspapers, books, news broadcasts. Even back in 1992 the joy of connecting to NASA ftp servers to download Voyager and Pioneer pictures of Saturn and it enigmatic, orange cloud enveloped moon Titan on the only Sun workstation with a colour display the university had, over a slow internet link. Watching in fascination as line-by-line the picture was displayed and possibly imagining oneself at JPL watching those raw pictures being received at Earth.
The Register has an article from yesterday on Voyager 1 (yes, still going since its launch in 1977!) which has the paragraph (emphasis mine):
Probably the most-loved survivor of 1970s space optimism, Voyager, has sent back signals indicating that it's left the heliosphere.
Maybe this is it, in the 1970s we were optimistic - there were many missions planned: Pioneers 10 and 11, followed by Voyagers 1 and 2 to complete the Grand Tour of the Solar System; later with the first missions to comets, landers on Venus and Mars.
Maybe science just took center stage for a brief moment only to be replaced with the need for fame and appearing on X-Factor? Maybe a picture of the creme brulee surface of Titan from a small lander piggybacked on a probe that made a multi-billion mile tour via Venus, Earth, the Moon, an asteroid or two, Jupiter and finally to Saturn, just don't complete against today's media offerings?
How can you not be amazed by pictures like this - think about what you're looking at and what it took to get those pictures for a moment!
Wikimedia Commons, see: here
On the other hand a grainy picture of Titan from one of the Voyager probes offered mystery and a challenge to be solved - what is under those clouds? - now we get picture of sand grains on Mars. Have we accidentally removed the mystery? Or, have we lost the big exciting picture to a mass audience? A third possibility is that science is either not understood, or just can't complete with a crass, exploitative talent show...
Space exploration in any form is exciting...just listing some of the current probes:
- Dawn is on its way to Ceres after a successful encounter with Vesta.
- Messenger has completed mapping all of Mercury's surface and turned up just one or two (or freaking lots!) of major mysteries
- Cassini is still going strong around Saturn
- Juno on its way to Jupiter
- Venus Express still examining Earth's "twin"
- Numerous orbiters around Mars and not forgetting two (yes TWO!) working rovers on the surface
- Rosetta is still on its journey to 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko.
- China's moon probe made a detour to visit a near-Earth asteroid
- Hayabusa returning samples from an asteroid
- New Horizons still speeds to its all too rapid fly-by of Pluto and its now five moons (incidentally traveling at approx 15km per second or 34000mph)
- etc etc...
- oh, not forgetting Voyager 1 and the rest...