Sunday, August 16, 2009
Sometimes advances in ground-based telescopes are the only consolation for those of us that would otherwise feel despair in having to wait decades for missions to be approved, readied and begun by whichever space agency is in charge of carrying it out. Though we currently have a probe around Saturn (Cassini), ground-based telescopes have recently made some pretty interesting observations of its largest moon Titan that shows that there is still quite a bit that can be done not only from LEO but also from the surface of the Earth itself, thanks to adaptive optics that make it possible to remove the effects of the Earth's atmosphere. The best thing about ground-based observatories is that relatively poor nations are also able to contribute, and also naturally the fact that observatory construction isn't as nail-biting as the launch of a mission that always has the chance of failure for some reason or another.
Titan is quite well-known for the fact that theoretical humans living on the surface (if they could, that is) would be able to fly simply by strapping on a well-made pair of wings and flapping, due to the combination of lower gravity and high atmospheric pressure. I'm also of the opinion that when looking at extrasolar planets we should be able to assume that those similar to Titan in those respects would have a higher probability of having a spacefaring civilization since simple bronze age technology alone would enable flight, whereas humans were not able to accomplish this until recently. Add a moon closer to the planet than ours and you have an even better chance, as the presence of a moon in the sky is a constant reminder to those on the surface that there is a good reason to advance to the point that one is able to travel there.
Then again, it's also possible that being able to do so much so early on may be disastrous, as being able not only to fly but to colonize a planet's moon before having achieved a certain level of civilization may lead to some sort of worldwide dictatorship or catastrophic war. Nazis on the Moon, that sort of thing.