Everyone has a different definition of beauty. And like a Rorschach inkblot test, I think someone's definition of beautiful speaks volumes about that person. For me, most of my "beautiful" images simply expose just how big a geek I really am.
I'll prove it to you. Let's focus on last week's press conference about Cassini's Enceladus flyby. Perhaps you've seen the stunning images of the plumes of gas and dust spewing off the surface of the icy Saturnian moon. Many might call that beautiful — and I would tend to agree. However, in my opinion, the scene on the right is more beautiful still. Let me explain why:
This is a view of Enceladus's south pole and the now famous Tiger Stripes. These long fractures are the source of the geysers, and were known to be hotter than any other place on the satellite. Notice I said hotter, not warmer. The latest measurements show peak temperatures at around -135°F, whereas the rest of the moon's surface hovers around -330°F.
But what makes this image so "beautiful" is the color overlay. You're seeing a high-resolution temperature map taken by Cassini's Composite Infrared Spectrometer. The CIRS never gets much press, but it deserves the spotlight for this view! Sure enough, the hot spots line up perfectly with the deep cracks in Enceladus's surface. Cassini scientist John Spencer (Southwest Research Institute, Colorado) goes a step further. "The plumes tend to be coming out of the warmest points of the fractures. It's entirely possible that there is going to be liquid water not too far below the surface of these warm fractures."
In other news, the spectroscopy folks found bunches of simple organic compounds in the towering plumes themselves. Interestingly, the composition closely resembles that of a comet. That tidbit is sure to send the experts' heads spinning.
Now I absolutely hate playing the "life card," but let's put the pieces together: we have the possibility for liquid water, we have proof of organic material, and we have a clear source of energy being put into the system. I'm not saying we'll find microbes. And I know other work rules it out. But I'm just pointing out that all the necessary ingredients are there.
And discovery like that would be beautiful indeed!