Chapter 12 Rings, Moons, and Pluto
Collaborative Group Activities
- Imagine it’s the distant future and humans can now travel easily among the planets. Your group is a travel agency, with the task of designing a really challenging tour of the Galilean moons for a group of sports enthusiasts. What kinds of activities are possible on each world? How would rock climbing on Ganymede, for example, differ from rock climbing on Earth? (If you design an activity for Io, you had better bring along very strong radiation shielding. Why?)
- In the same spirit as Activity 1, have your agency design a tour that includes the seven most spectacular sights of any kind on all the moons or rings covered in this chapter. What are the not-to-be-missed destinations that future tourists will want to visit and why? Which of the sights you pick are going to be spectacular if you are on the moon’s surface or inside the ring, and which would look interesting only from far away in space?
- In this chapter we could cover only a few of the dozens of moons in the outer solar system. Using the Internet or your college library, organize your group into a research team and find out more about one of the moons we did not cover in detail. Our favorites include Uranus’ Miranda, with its jigsaw puzzle surface; Saturn’s Mimas, with a “knockout” crater called Herschel; and Saturn’s Iapetus, whose two hemispheres differ significantly. Prepare a report to attract tourists to the world you selected.
- In a novel entitled 2010, science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke, inspired by the information coming back from the Voyager spacecraft, had fun proposing a life form under the ice of Europa that was evolving toward intelligence. Suppose future missions do indeed find some sort of life (not necessarily intelligent but definitely alive) under the ice of Europa—life that evolved completely independently from life on Earth. Have your group discuss what effect such a discovery would have on humanity’s view of itself. What should be our attitude toward such a life form? Do we have an obligation to guard it against contamination by our microbes and viruses? Or, to take an extreme position, should we wipe it out before it becomes competitive with Earth life or contaminates our explorers with microorganisms we are not prepared to deal with? Who should be in charge of making such decisions?
- In the same spirit as Activity 4, your group may want to watch the 2013 science fiction film Europa Report. The producers tried to include good science in depicting what it would be like for astronauts to visit that jovian moon. How well does your group think they did?
- A number of modern science fiction writers (especially those with training in science) have written short stories that take place on the moons of Jupiter and Saturn. There is a topical listing of science fiction stories with good astronomy at http://www.astrosociety.org/scifi. Members of your group can look under “Jupiter” or “Saturn” and find a story that interests you and then report on it to the whole class.
- Work together to make a list of all the reasons it is hard to send a mission to Pluto. What compromises had to be made so that the New Horizons mission was affordable? How would you design a second mission to learn more about the Pluto system?
- Your group has been asked by NASA to come up with one or more missions to learn about Europa. Review what we know about this moon so far and then design a robotic mission that would answer some of the questions we have. You can assume that budget is not a factor, but your instruments have to be realistic. (Bear in mind that Europa is cold and far from the Sun.)
- Imagine your group is the first landing party on Pluto (let’s hope you remembered to bring long underwear!). You land in a place where Charon is visible in the sky and you observe Charon for one Earth week. Describe what Charon will look like during that week. Now you move your camp to the opposite hemisphere of Pluto. What will Charon look like there during the course of a week?
- When, in 2006, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) decided that Pluto should be called a dwarf planet and not a planet, they set up three criteria that a world must meet to be called a planet. Your group should use the Internet to find these criteria. Which of them did Pluto not meet? Read a little bit about the reaction to the IAU’s decision among astronomers and the public. How do members of your group feel about Pluto’s new classification? (After you have discussed it within the group, you may want to watch The Great Planet Debate video recommended in “For Further Exploration.”)