Thursday, November 29, 2012

Operation Deep Sounding

Cash was falling free through Saturn’s vast skies at a steep angle, making slow S-turns to bleed off excess velocity. He eyeballed Vera Jackson’s singleship falling ahead of him, about fifty kilometres to the east, looked for and failed to find any sign of the pod dropped by the shuttle, uploaded a status check to mission control and acknowledged the congratulations of the mission commander.

‘On my mark,’ Vera said, and counted down from ten.

Cash deployed his drogue parachutes at zero and there was a thump and a tremendous corkscrewing jerk as the parachutes swung him around and checked his forward momentum, and then he was falling nose down through a vast clear ocean of hydrogen and helium at just under a hundred kilometres an hour, in a prevailing air current that was taking him eastwards at about five times that speed. In about ten hours, if he kept falling at his present rate, he would reach the beginning of the amorphous boundary between the gaseous atmosphere and the deep ocean of hot metallic hydrogen that lay beneath, although long before then the singleship would have been crushed and scorched to a cinder by tremendous pressures and temperatures. Not even tough, heavily shielded robot probes had ever penetrated to more than half the depth of the gaseous phase of Saturn’s atmosphere. The two singleships would fall for only three hours, dropping through the liquid-water zone before igniting their motors and departing.

If everything went well, they’d pass close to their target. And even if they missed it, the packages they planned to release contained autonomous drones that could ride the winds of Saturn for months while they tracked it down and searched for other anomalies. Meanwhile, Cash had a few moments to enjoy the tremendous panorama wrapped around him. It was early morning. The sky was deep indigo and seemingly infinite, the sun a tiny flattened disc that glowered at the hazy horizon, the centre of concentric shells of bloody light that rose towards zenith. In every direction, the crystalline hydrogen atmosphere stretched for thousands of kilometres, broken only by a few wisps of cloud formed from frozen ammonia, looking just like ordinary cirrus cloud and tinged pink by dawn light. He felt like a king of this whole wide world, an emperor of air, and told Vera that this place was definitely made for flying.

‘I hear that,’ Vera said.  ‘Check out the storm. We’re right in the pipe.’

Below, halfway to the eastern horizon, a creamy ocean of cloud rifted apart around the storm’s great oval eye. With interrupted arcs of cloud and clear air curved around it, it looked much like a hurricane back on Earth. In fact, everything seemed eerily familiar. Blue sky, white clouds, the sun gaining a golden hue as it lifted above the horizon. It took an effort to remember that the distance to the horizon was more than ten times that on Earth. That the storm was two thousand kilometres across. That the sky was hydrogen and helium a thousand kilometres deep, with cloud layers of ammonium ice above and decks of ammonium hydrosulphide and ammonium-rich water-ice and water-droplet clouds below, endlessly blowing around this vast world.

From The Quiet War (2008)

Image taken by the Cassini spacecraft on November 27th.  More here.


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