Sending a Robot to Saturn?
As all the Google Lunar X PRIZE teams work hard to accomplish the first commercial robotic mission to the Moon, I think about other places that might be neat to send a robot to. In case you have not heard, this week there has been some very cool and unexplained activity taking place in our own galaxy. No, not with the Moon and not with Mars, but with Saturn.
There has been a serious storm brewing for the last two years, as it turns out. Observations by Cassini spacecraft first detected a rise in temperature in December 2010. Scientists say trends showed that the enormous storm sent temperatures in the planet's stratosphere soaring 150 degrees Fahrenheit above normal. Scientists say these temperature spikes are so extreme, it's almost unbelievable, especially because they are occurring in a calm part of Saturn’s atmosphere. This region is usually very stable. Some scientists claim in order to achieve a temperature change of the same scale on Earth, you'd be going from the depths of winter in Fairbanks, Alaska, to the height of summer in the Mojave Desert.
Does this not sound like a cool place to visit? Well, it will not likely happen because of the planet’s makeup. I did read that NASA scientists are talking about sending a remote-controlled sailboat designed to sail on a methane lake on one of Saturn’s moons. Is that not exciting? The fact is, NASA has sent Voyager 1 and 2, and Cassini to study the makeup of Saturn, and these spacecraft have done an outstanding job gathering useful climate data.
Scientists know that Saturn is made up of 96% hydrogen and 3% helium with a few other elements thrown in. Scientists are unclear if there is a solid core. They have a very hard time looking through the dense atmosphere. There are winds in excess of 1100 mph in some regions of the atmosphere!
While Saturn most likely formed from a rocky or icy core, its low density seems to point to more of a liquid metal and rock mixture at the core. Saturn is the only planet which has a density lower than that of water. If anything, the core region would be more like a ball of thick syrup with a few rocky chunks. There doesn’t seem to be any part of Saturn that is solid as we understand it. That is, there is no place that you could set foot on it and stand, or even land a lander and rover.
The core region of Saturn may never be directly observed. The Earth’s has not either. Despite that, scientists are fairly certain that while Saturn has a core, it is not a solid mass of rock or metal, but a liquid metallic mixture similar to all of the gas giants.
We may not get to compete commercially to send a robot to Saturn, but it still is cool to think about. There is so much that we do not know, and we need to learn. The elusive affordable space transportation answer will continue to haunt me until we have breakthroughs because we need to explore. Exploration is progressive and innate, and it is in our DNA.