Google Maps launches virtual travel to planets and moons

Optimists would have you believe that humans will set foot on Mars within 20 years. But even if it happens that soon, the financial and opportunity costs of such a mission would put it out of reach for the vast majority of Earthlings.

But as of this week, anyone with a computer and internet connection can take a fairly fascinating journey to more than a dozen planets and moons.

Using hundreds of thousands of images captured by the Cassini spacecraft, Google has just launched a new feature on Maps that allows users to virtually explore the red planet, Venus, Mercury, Pluto and 10 moons (beside our own).

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“Explore the icy plains of Enceladus, where Cassini discovered water beneath the moon’s crust — suggesting signs of life. Peer beneath the thick clouds of Titan to see methane lakes,” Google said in announcing the feature.

“Inspect the massive crater of Mimas — while it might seem like a sci-fi look-a-like, it is a moon, not a space station.”

Cassini was launched in 1997, and made its way around our solar system until NASA sent it to its death in September, when it was pointed toward Saturn so it would be destroyed in Saturn’s atmosphere.

But why, after doing unprecedented work on behalf of science (and, it turns out, Google users), did Cassini have to die?

Rumor had it that the spacecraft was out of fuel, but that’s not true, according to a PBS report. Instead, it was a matter of avoiding interplanetary contamination and satisfy the space agency’s Office of Planetary Protection. This office is dedicated to safeguarding “our ability to study other worlds as they exist in their natural states” and to avoiding “contamination that would obscure our ability to find life elsewhere,” PBS reported.

And there’s a closer-to-home reason for Cassini’s enforced demise: bring such a craft back to Earth after visits to other worlds, and the next thing you know all life on Earth is extinguished by an alien virus.


Image: Artist’s rendering of the Cassini spacecraft with Saturn (NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory)


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