As fate would have it, this column comes out the day after the election. That means you, dear reader, have just started celebrating the Obama triumph or bemoaning the McCain upset (or vice versa, if you're the one Republican who reads Presently Tense) while I am stuck back here in last week's world of uncertainty, biting my nails.From this vantage point, I feel at a disadvantage. You bring to this meeting of Dave-the-Columnist and Joe-the-Reader knowledge that the world is now profoundly changed from the way it's been for the last eight years or, conversely, that it's pretty much the same, except maybe a little scarier.
Back here in the pre-Halloween, pre-election past, though, there is something going on that may impact your reality regardless of who won the election.
I'm talking about NASA's press conference last Wednesday to discuss the findings of Messenger, the spacecraft that flew over Mercury in October, which measured the planet's surface, atmosphere and magnetic field and sent us pictures that reveal 30 percent of its surface never before seen by a spacecraft.
As you know or don't know, this is Messenger's second pass this year over Mercury, the least-explored terrestrial planet in our solar system and closest to the Sun; the first was in January. It got closer this time, within 124 miles, and took some nice pictures of the surface, which looks a lot like the surface of our Moon.
The last time we had a spacecraft near Mercury was Mariner, which made three passes over the same side of the planet in 1974 and '75. According to NASA, Messenger has helped us map about 90 percent of the planet's surface.
The best is yet to come, though, when Messenger makes another pass in 2011 and actually enters the orbit of Mercury, so close that Messenger could spit on the planet—if Messenger could spit.
Actually, spit would probably instantly evaporate or freeze on Mercury. The hot areas are 800 degrees, and the cold parts get down to negative 350. There might even be ice in the shaded craters at the poles, which never get blasted by the Sun. That's one of the mysteries of Mercury that scientists hope to unravel in 2011: Is that ice, or sulfur, or what in those craters?
Another mystery is the blue stuff. Associated Press writer Seth Borenstein reports that new images of Mercury's giant, city-sized craters indicate that 4 billion years ago, the planet was exploding with volcanoes that spewed what NASA scientists call “mysterious dark blue material,” which covers much of the planet. Arizona State University geologist Mark Robinson thinks the blue stuff might contain iron from the planet's interior.
Messenger is grappling with lots of other mysteries of Mercury, and you can learn all about them at Nasa.gov.
I know what you're thinking: Neat, D.A., but what does the uninhabitable surface of Mercury have to do with my current Earth-bound elation or despair?
Two words: coping and hoping.
First, given the outside chance that by the time you're reading this, I will have joined you in gazing into the awesome void that is the country's apparently limitless ability to make stupid choices, we may find some comfort in a stiff shot of Kosmic Kool-Aid to settle the spins. Bracing oneself with a meditation on the vast, unfathomable infinite helps maintain some cosmic perspective on loss.
Right after the Bush nightmare “win” of 2004, for instance, I made an evening pilgrimage to Balboa Park to peer up at the sky through one of the impressive telescopes set up by the San Diego Astronomy Association. Look at Mars! It's so far away and dead!
Coincidentally, the good folks of the SDAA should be in the park in the evening on the day this issue comes out, since it is the first Wednesday of the month, and you can bet that if Obama is not the president, I will be out there after dark at the fountain in front of the Ruben H. Fleet Space Theater, searching for signs of intelligent life in the universe.
So if it's just sinking in for you right now that McCain is succeeding Bush, I urge you to quickly watch this video over and over and over again: http://www.nasa.gov/centers/mar shall/mpeg/126252main_mdis_depart.mpeg.
It was created by animating hundreds of images taken by Messenger during a 24-hour period, during its gravity-assisted swing by Earth as it headed off to Mercury in 2005. The 358 frames track Earth through a complete rotation. Messenger was 40,761 miles above South America when the first shot was taken on Aug. 2 and 270,847 miles from Earth (farther than the Moon) when it grabbed the last image on Aug. 3.
Consider that at this moment we're sitting on this spinning blue and white sphere, hurtling through the deep black unknown, a mere speck in the eye of the galaxy. The damage Sarah Palin can do is nothing compared to a supernova. This is coping.
Then there's hoping. Let's say Obama won; you're hung over from last night's celebration and right now you're watching the GITMO yard sale on C-SPAN, proud and optimistic.
Consider what a profound achievement of our species and our science it is to have a spacecraft en route to Mercury.
Now consider that you have a president who respects science and believes in progress. Kind of makes you think we can get a couple things done down here, too, doesn't it?
Hope or grief: they are the things with solar-panel wings.