Monday, September 19, 2011

To the Stars Again

Space has always been fascinating to us.  Long before technology allowed us to venture beyond the atmosphere, we've been fascinated with celestial objects.  Ancient cultures made gods out of them.  We've sacrificed our fellow humans to them.  They've affected daily life in numerous ways, from art to superstition to navigation to who knows what else.

I opined recently in a post on Curiosity Quills whether the decline in our space program would significantly alter the type of speculative fiction our children would read from that which we read.  I wondered whether the focus would shift from science fiction about outer space to more virtual reality, cyberspace-oriented science fiction.  It seems plausible, considering the end of the Space Shuttle program and the costs and logistics of a successful mission so a place even as relatively close as Mars.

But I wonder if I may have been a little premature in my pondering.  I've seen a number of interesting scientific discoveries lately that make me consider another alternative, and that is, we won't have to go out into space to continue our fascination with it.  Bringing it home via magnificent telescopes, video recording systems, and digital recreations of what only mathematics sees in space might just be the catalyst.

Hubble Catches Jupiter's Largest Moon Going to the 'Dark Side', © NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

Consider the new planet made of diamond that was recently discovered.  Or the Tatooine-like planet that revolves around two suns.  Or the fact the planet Pluto may have oceans hidden beneath it's surface.  All three of these discoveries have been in the news within the last month or so, and all are exciting new developments in space research.  Maybe we'll end up designating poor Pluto as a planet once again.

Crab Nebula, © NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

Technology grows in leaps and bounds, and that includes the tech that allows us to expand our reach into space without ever leaving the ground.  We're seeing more and more beautiful photos like these from NASA, allowing us the unique experience of space at a distance.

Hubble Finds Carbon Dioxide on an Extrasolar Planet, © NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

And while it would be ├╝berawesome to be an astronaut, and who hasn't dreamed of that as a child, the odds of a kid actually growing up to be an astronaut are well, astronomical.  Precious few actually get the chance to go up in space, unless of course you have large amounts of cash lying around without purpose and want to do it as a tourist.  That's where programs and projects like the Hubble come into play.  They allow that exploration without the travel.  They allow kids who won't have that chance to be actively engaged with the science of space exploration and research.

Hubble Supernova Bubble Resembles Holiday Ornament, © NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

We can see worlds far beyond our own, and even speculate whether they have life on them or even contain livable environments.  We might even be able to detect life on even the remotest of them someday soon.  That's a lot, considering we're looking at objects fifty kajillion light years away from being seen with the naked eye.

We're a curious species, and whether or not we continue or discontinue a program, our curiosity won't be easily sated.  We'll continue to wonder what's out there beyond the boundaries of our vision, and we'll continue to reach out to find it.

Dying Star Shrouded by a Blanket of Hailstones Forms the Bug Nebula, © NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

So who knows, maybe I speculated wrong in my earlier post.  In fact, I'm sure I did.  Not because the premise was necessarily wrong, but because I didn't take into consideration the other aspects of technology we are developing.  And while we will continue to break down the barriers of the cyberspace frontier, it won't come at the expense of abandoning outer space.

Most Earthlike Exoplanet Started out as Gas Giant, © NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

We may be decades or even a century or more from actual space travel to another celestial body besides the moon.  We may never get there as humans, but we aren't going to remain that stationary with the technology that allows us to view it from where we are.  And that's what's going to further drive space age science and the speculative fiction that derives from it.  As more and more of these exciting discoveries are made, our imaginations will remain fueled with thoughts of what's even further out.

Our kids may well see the same space-inspired fiction we grew up reading and watching, but because of the remote technology that allows us to see it from a distance, instead of manned space vehicles exploring the visible space around us.  Rather than shifting focus, this type of fiction will expand its focus.  We've already seen several new sub-genres appear in the last several decades or so, and we'll continue to see more.  Our kids won't abandon the types of speculative fiction we grew up with, they'll just add more to the mix, and that's a great thing.

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