Saturday, September 26, 2009

Io Erupting – Evidence of Life Beyond Earth Discovered

On March 4, 1979, Voyager 1 flew past Jupiter’s closest Galilean moon Io. As NASA scientists scrutinized the many images produced, they discovered what appeared to be a plume spewing from the rocky surface of the red-orange satellite. They couldn’t believe their eyes. For the first time ever, mankind had recorded an active volcano (seven in fact) outside our own Earth. This planetoid was alive!

I remember devouring this image and the associated science when I received the June 1979 issue of Science. Having completed only my first year of undergraduate work studying physics and astronomy, the picture tantalized me beyond what one might expect (you see, I intended to – and did – specialize in stellar astrophysics, not planetary geophysics). Still, I once had a youthful obsession with all things volcanic. I once spent several third grade days nestled closely to a tome detailing the ten worst volcano eruptions – and gladly repeated (over and over) each disaster to my innocent parents. This image rekindled that love affair for the penultimate time. (The ultimate time? – that’s another story).

For me, a living moon was more significant than the other famous Voyager discovery (Jupiter has rings!). So much of the story amazed me. Not just the science, but the technology. Remember, this was only the second group of spacecraft to venture outside the asteroid belt. I recall waiting with bated breath for NASA to give the thumbs-up signal that the first two probes – Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11 – successfully traversed that dreaded obstacle course six years earlier. Well, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 both made it past the pieces of rock and iron, too, but they had something else. They possessed a much better imaging system (and a greater awareness of the radiation belts near Io). Indeed, the fact we could receive such detailed pictures over such a long distance awed me.

The year was 1979. Just ten years earlier we had conquered the moon. Now, NASA – and America – was leading the human race further than the local orbits of the terrestrial planets and soon would fly to Saturn – and beyond. And I was entering my sophomore year studying the very same subject, one that I had loved since I was old enough to understand.

I was young. The space program was young. It was a beautiful world – er – universe to be a part of.

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