Thursday, September 14, 2017

Adieu Cassini

At about 5 o'clock tomorrow morning, the Cassini spacecraft will plunge into Saturn nearly 20 years after it was launched from Earth and over 13 years after it began orbiting Saturn. It's been the source of an incredible amount of information. Cassini allowed scientists to discover seven new moons of Saturn for example.

I started writing the Religion Blog for OregonLive about the time Cassini entered Saturn's orbit, but as it didn't have much relevance for religion, I couldn't justify blogging about it. However, several months later, Cassini released the Huygens probe to fall towards Saturn's largest moon Titan, hopefully parachuting down while taking pictures, and hopefully landing softly and taking more pictures. All of these hopefullys paid off. Since Titan is one of the potential sites that scientists have speculated might have some form of life, I wrote a blogpost about the origin of life and what the potential discovery of extra-terrestrial life might mean for Christianity.

Below is my original blogpost. The updates are from that post, not something I'm adding on now.


Friday, January 14, 2005
A Caveat on the Origin of Life
In just a couple of hours from the time of this writing (late Thursday night), at 1:05 a.m. Pacific time, the Huygens Probe will plunge into the atmosphere of Saturn's largest moon, Titan. It will then deploy a parachute and take measurements and pictures as it descends, and possibly after it lands if everything goes just right. It will probably be able to function for no more than 30 minutes, and the radio signals it transmits to the Cassini spacecraft will then take a couple of hours to reach Earth.

I am really jazzed about this. It's going to send pictures from within Titan's atmosphere, and possibly from the surface itself. Of course, part of the reason they sent this thing is because Titan's atmosphere is too opaque to see through, so any given picture will probably just be a greyish blur. But it will be a greyish blur from Titan!

I've commented before about how Titan is a primary site-of-interest for origins-of-life research because it meets one of several dozen necessary prerequisites for life to exist (high nitrogen content). I wrote about the religious implications of origin-of-life research last May. But I need to point something out that I haven't before: there is no a priori reason to assume that God created life supernaturally. The Bible constantly refers to God bringing about certain effects through the natural laws he set up. For example, most movies about Moses parting the Red Sea depict it supernaturally: he holds up his staff or strikes it to the ground and the water flees away. But the Bible gives a different picture.

Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and all that night the LORD drove the sea back with a strong east wind and turned it into dry land. The waters were divided, and the Israelites went through the sea on dry ground, with a wall of water on their right and on their left.

So it seems to me that if God parted the waters by means of a strong wind, he may very well have created the first forms of life by means of natural processes as well. In fact, in Genesis 1 God states "Let the land produce" various forms of life, not once, but twice. This description strikes me as being consistent with God using the elements of nature to bring about an effect (although it certainly doesn't demand such an interpretation). So again, if it is discovered tomorrow that life can come into existence by natural processes, it really wouldn't hurt my faith at all -- anymore than if some scientists came out with a study showing that, under certain conditions, a strong east wind could temporarily blow back the water of the Red Sea.

Of course, if science demonstrated that natural processes are insufficient to account for the origin of life, then other-than-natural processes are pretty much the only alternative. And this seems to be the actual state of affairs.

Update (11:30 a.m.): The Huygens Probe made a soft landing and continued transmitting data! Woo hoo!

Update (11:40 a.m.): has live coverage.

Update (8:30 p.m.): First pictures!

From 16.2 km up we see what looks like streams leading to an ocean (of methane probably):

From the surface:

Sam Jaffe points out "We have seen the face of Titan and it looks...kind of like Santa Fe."

No comments: