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Moon with aView

The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.

the ship had long since passed the boundary set by outermost Phoebe, moving backward in a wildly eccentric orbit eight million miles from its primary. Ahead of it now lay Iapetus, Hyperion, Titan, Rhea, Dione, Tethys, Enceladus, Mimas, Janus and the rings themselves. All the satellites showed a maze of surface detail Titan alone three thousand miles in diameter, and as large as Mercury would occupy months

There was more; already he was certain that Iapetus was his goal.

One hemisphere of the satellite, which, like its companions, turned the same face always toward Saturn, was extremely dark, and showed very little surface detail. In complete contrast, the other was dominated by a brilliant white oval, about four hundred miles long and two hundred wide. At the moment, only part of this striking formation was in daylight, but the reason for Iapetuss extraordinary variations in brilliance was now quite obvious .

Those words — written over forty years ago by my long-time friend, Arthur C. Clarke — describe the voyage of a lone, surviving astronaut David Bowman to the ringed wonder of the solar system, the planet Saturn, aboard a 21stCentury spacecraft named Discovery.

What Bowman discovers in the Saturn system on an enigmatic moon called Iapetus — will forever change the Destiny of Humans .

But, Arthurs prophetic words could just as easily be describing the current, equally astonishing 21stCentury revelations of an unmanned spacecraft called Cassini, exploring the latest baffling mysteries Saturn . In particular — NOT the much ballyhooed, though recently successful descent of Cassinis Huygens probe to the surface of Titan Saturns largest satellite (whose results will be involved later in our extraordinary tale )

But Cassinis far lesser known, far more haunting (and to me) far more significant

In 1965, whenArthur began collaborating with the brilliant film director, Stanley Kubrick,it was to bring their unique view of Mankinds most enduring mystery Where do wereallycome from ? to the silver screen, in a way never seen before. They succeeded … brilliantly.

The result was the immortal 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Simultaneously, Arthur penned the Saturn approach scene we began with (above), his own independent version of the same story –a novel which, to some at least, has made portions of Stanleys very enigmatic 2001 perhaps a little more accessible (at least, certain transcendental aspects of the film ).

In Kubricks extravaganza, the climax comes when David Bowman — the lone surviving astronaut of the deep space expedition, sent by a future NASA in search of the Force which, godlike, has somehow repeatedly intervened in the million plus year evolution of Mankind finally encounters the Monolith a black enigmatic door, in orbit around the giant planet Jupiter.

The Monolith turns out to be (among its other wonders) a star gate a literal doorway (which, of course, is why Kubrick cinematically made it adoor) to other dimensions of space and time and, ultimately, the mysterious Progenitors of the Human Race itself.

When Bowman eventually falls through it, he enters the Star Gates vast Hyperdimensional transport system, culminating in his own ambiguous meeting with the Progenitors (or, at least as much of them as they allow him to experience ), which results in his final transformation and return to Earth the latest agent in Humanities continuing managed evolution.

In Arthursnovel(removed from the pre-CGI, 1960s limitations on film special effects that even Stanley Kubrick had to live with ), the Monolith is waiting much farther from the Sun on one ofSaturnsdistant moons

Thesame moon– forty yearsafterArthurs novel I would contend, which has now been revealed in Cassinis latest images as


Iapetus [eye-AP-i-tus]is the seventeenth of Saturns thirty three currently known moons, and the third largest. It was named after a Titan — the son of Uranus and the father of Prometheus and Atlas (the latter said to be the fathers of Mankind). Thus, in Greek myth, Iapetus was also an ancestor aprogenitorof Homo Sapiens Sapiens .

Iapetus was first seen via telescopeby Jean-Dominique Cassini, in 1671.

Iapetus actual name, however, was only given to it a hundred and seventy six yearsafterit was first seen by Cassini (who merely referred to it, and the other three star-like objects he also discovered circling Saturn, as Lodicea Sidera –the stars of Louis — in honor of Frances KingLouis XIV, who had appointed him Frances chief astronomer).

The current names of Saturns major moons, taken from a group of superbeings in Greek myth called Titans, were given them bySir John Herschel,in 1847. Herschels nomenclature for Iapetus and the other six (then) known moons, was based on the logical association of Saturn (Cronus in Greek) with the Titans; Herschel, continuing the ritual, named the largest Saturnian moon Titan itself in honor of the entire pantheon.

Speaking of names: Cassini would go on to eventually discover the largest gap in Saturns splendid, bewilderingly complex rings, five yearsafterdiscovering Iapteus in 1676. This was later appropriately named after its own discoverer the Cassini Division (below, under spacecraft). It is, of course, because of Cassinis record of several major astronomical discoveries at Saturn, that the current unmanned Saturn mission is so-named .

Iapetus most singular characteristic is the fact that, in Cassinis small, 17thcentury refracting telescope (it only had an objective lens twoinchesin diameter!), the faint Saturnian moon (about 100 times dimmer than the faintest object visible to the unaided naked eye) seemed to literallydisappearabout every 40 days for half its 79-day orbit!

As Cassini watched, Iapetus would be visible during its so-called western elongation (when it was west of Saturn in the sky), but would then progressively get dimmer as it curved around and passed behind the planet, until it completelyvanishedasit approached eastern elongation. Then, a few days later, it would magicallyreappear as an extremely faint star growing steadily in brightness, until it reached its farthest distancewestof Saturn once again and its greatest brightness!

This puzzling behavior would then mysteriously repeat — like the newly invented mechanical clockwork –every79 days; a mysterious winking moon orbiting Saturn for as long as Cassini observed.

Although he was only capable of observing Iapetus in his small telescope as a dimensionless point of light, Cassini correctly theorized that this winking moon phenomenon had to be due to the fact that one entire hemisphere of Iapetus must be vastly brighter than the other half and that the moon wassynchronouslyrotating (with one hemisphere continuously facing Saturn like Earths Moon always faces Earth) as Iapetus revolved around the distant ringed planet in its 79-day orbit (below). If the leading hemisphere of Iapetus was very dark Cassini theorized, and the trailing hemisphere remarkably bright, this simple geometry would result in the distant moon periodically falling below detectability in his modest glass

Three hundred ten years later on November 14, 1980 — the NASA Voyager 1 unmanned spacecraft transmitted, from only a few hundred thousand miles away, the first clear image back to Earth showing that Cassini had been right! Remarkably, the entire front half of Iapetus was fullyten times darkerthan the back half the former reflecting only about as much light as a piece of charcoal or (as Arthur put it in 2001) burnt toast!

Thegeometryof this inexplicable dichotomy also proved unique (below): for obvious reasons, Iapetus forever earned the title that evening, after Voyagers historic first fully resolved images were sent home, of

At last, the pale dawn lay ahead; the ship, moving more and more slowly now, was emerging into day. It could no longer escape from the Sun, or even from Saturn but it was still moving swiftly enough to rise away from the planet until it grazed the orbit of Iapetus, two million miles out.

It would take Discovery fourteen days to make that climb, as she coasted once more, though in reverse order, across the paths of all the inner moons. One by one she would cut through the orbits of Janus, Mimas, Enceladus, Tethys, Dione, Rhea, Titan, Hyperion worlds bearing the names of gods and goddesses who had vanished only yesterday, as time was counted here.

Then she would meet Iapetus, and must make her rendezvous .

Voyager acquired many images as it approached Iapetus for the first time. On some of them (below – left), a large (~ 150 mile diameter), dark, ring-shaped feature appeared on the side of the moon facing Saturn. In the center of the ring — almost exactly as Arthur had described it beforeanyonecould have seen it — was an ellipticalwhiteregion with ablackcenter!

Arthur laterreportedthat our mutual friend and colleague, the late Carl Sagan — who was one of the Voyager imaging team members some time after the first Iapetus encounter, sent him one of these remarkable photos (above) along with a note:

In these first fascinating images, tangent to this giant ring (above) in fact, appearing toemanatefrom it in some kind of directed spray pattern! — was the far larger, extremely dark, elliptical feature which appeared to cover the entire front of this exotic moon. This was strikingly confirmed by a somewhat closer shot, taken in approximate natural color by the follow-on Voyager 2 spacecraft (and, of the opposite side of the moon — the one facing away from Saturn) in August, 1981 (below).

Another, closer shot — this time, of the Saturn side of Iapetus again, from the current Cassini mission (below). Imaged by Cassinis much superior solid-state cameras, in July, 2004, the view confirms Voyagers remarkable first impressions .

Mercator projection maps (below), created from images secured during both Voyager fly-bys (the black regions are areas not covered by either spacecraft), confirm this remarkable geometric aspect of the dark side of Iapetus: the extraordinarily dark region traces an almost exact elliptical pattern on the front of this increasingly bizarre moon .

But thecauseif this unique, geometric two-toned surface was still as mysteriousafterthe two historic Voyager encounters as before.

Thus, it was with some anticipation that those of us who were lucky enough to be at JPL the night of the first Voyager Iapetus images twenty five years ago, looked forward a few weeks ago to the closest fly-by of Iapetus to date to be accomplished by the Cassini spacecraft, on New Years Eve, 2004.

Passing as close at 40,000 miles, and with cameras orders of magnitude superior to Voyagers, the results of the December 31, 2004Cassini imagingdid not disappoint: not only do the details surpass all prior expectations they reveal even deeper mysteries surrounding this increasingly exotic moon .

The distant images immediately confirmed one curious impression left from the Voyager encounters of a quarter century before: in addition to its other unique characteristics, Iapetus doesnotseem to be a perfectly round moon!

A comparison with a real sphere (below-right) reveals that, from this angle, Iapetus is visibly squashed — by something like 50 miles out of its 900, or about 5%. For solid rocky bodies larger than a few hundred miles across, the relentless force of gravityalwaysovercomes the innate tensile strength of such materials, and forces them to assume a spherical geometry. For solid icy bodies (those possessing less tensile strength), the limiting size before a sphere is formed is even smaller.

The key to defining this upper roundness limit lies in remotely determining a moons specific gravity, which will in turn reveal its average composition.

The means of doing this via an orbiting or passing spacecraft, is by optically measuring the objects diameter (from images), then comparing that to its overall mass (derived from observing the effect of its gravitational field on the spacecrafts trajectory). This mass determination, divided into the optical diameter, then gives the average density of the object which, in turn, can narrow down its potential composition.

Earths Moon, for example, has an average density of 3.34 (3.34 times a similar-sized sphere composed of water) revealing it to be composed primarily of much denser silicates arockyobject. Thus, at 2160 miles across, despite the significant tensile strength of rocks, the Moons own gravity has crushed it down to almost a perfect sphere, as seen from Earth.

For Iapetus, Voyagers measured density (via the techniques described above) is about 1.21 clearly only slightly denser than an equal sized body made of water (there were obviously a few rocky impurities incorporated into Iapteus during in its formation, slightly increasing its average density ). Because this solid, mostly icy body measures almost 900 miles across, yet rotates only once every79 days,any equatorial centrifugal force is clearly insignificant. Thus, this cannot be the source of Iapetus major out of roundness.

Coupled with the density observations of Voyager (and now Cassini), these simple calculations assure that Iapetus basic shape (not counting pieces blown off by external comet impacts ) should be essentially a perfect sphere. Several of Saturns significantly smaller moons — like Mimas and Enceladus — although also icy objects, are spheres .

Clearly, for some important reason Iapteus isnot.

Now, look again at the left-hand image of Iapetus (above). Whats that thing … sticking up twelvemilesabove the left-hand limb? According toNASAs official descriptionof this image, it reveals in 3-D–

a long narrow ridge that lies almost exactly on the equator of Iapetus .

The release then goes on to say, with serious understatement:

no other moon in the solar system has such a striking geological feature .

On color versions of the same image (below) — created bycompositing three Cassini viewstaken through ultraviolet, green and infrared filters the contrast between the bizarre chocolate brown of the leading hemisphere, and the brilliant white polar caps north and south — is particularly striking.

As is the presence of that baffling, arrow-straight,12-mile-high(~60,000 foot!) wall — which precisely bisects the leading hemisphere, and apparently crossesthe entire widthof this strangely darkened Cassini Regio over 800 miles in length.

for weeks, as it stared forever Sunward with its strangesenses, the Star Gate had watched the approaching ship. Its makers had prepared it for many things, and this was one of them. It recognized what was climbing up toward it from the warm heart of the Solar System.

If it had been alive, it would have felt excitement, but such an emotion was wholly beyond its powers. Even if the ship had passed it by, it would not have known the slightest trace of disappointment. It had waited three million years; it was prepared to wait for eternity .

There has hardly been an observer, viewing these astonishing new Cassini images of Saturns strangest moon, who has not also thought of Arthur Clarke and 2001.

But some, after seeing the staggering equatorial feature now girdling Iapetus, reached back even further into Arthurs past, to recall an earlier, equally prescient short story, called eerily

In a universe consisting of one star and one planet, here is a mysterious impenetrable wall surrounding theentire planet in the deep freezing southlands. Two men,one with money, the other with building skills, engage in a long-term program to scale the wall and find out whats on the other side. The answer turns out to be rather upsetting .

In our opinion, Cassinis discovery of the Great Wall of Iapetus now forces serious reconsideration of a range of staggering possibilities that some will mostcertainlyfind upsetting:

That, it could reallybea wall a vast, planet spanning,artificialconstruct!!

This is not the first time that startling new data has prompted scientific consideration of intelligence at Saturn.

In addition to Arthurs well-known musings, the extreme albedo range displayed by Iapetus prompted a sober suggestion in the 1980s, that the brightness variations might beartificial. Donald Goldsmith and Tobias Owen (the latter, the NASA discoverer of the face on Mars!) wrote of Iapetus inThe Search for Life in the Universe(1980):

This unusual moon is the only object in the Solar System which we might seriously regard as analien signpost- a natural objectdeliberately modifiedby an advanced civilization to attract our attention [emphasis added] .

However, now that Cassini has revealed to us unquestionablythe greatest linear feature in the solar system(below), such scientific speculations take on added urgency if, for no other reason — because

There is no viable geological model to explain asixty thousand-foot-high, sixty thousand-foot-wide, four million-foot-longwall spanningan entire planetary hemisphere let alone, located in theprecise planeof its equator!

It is a well-known clich that Nature doesnt usually create straight lines. If that is true, then it certainly doesnt createthreeof them (close-up-below) all runningparallel, not only to each other,butto the literal equator of the planet.

Nature also doesnt create a veritable Maginot Line of the geometric complexity and regularity seen here certainly not one stretching horizontally, across this one small section of Iapetus, for oversixtymiles .

Therefore, ignoring for the moment who might have constructed such an astounding edifice, and for what reason, the most important question at this stage is simply:

Is it feasible? Could a literalwall– 12 miles high and 12 miles wide — betechnologicallyconstructed on Iapetus?!

The largest skyscraper currently planned for Earth is soon to be completed inthe oil-rich kingdom of Dubai. The massive structure (below), assembled with conventional concrete and steel but in a buttressed core configuration, will reach an unprecedented height of2312 feetwhen completed, projected for sometime in 2008!

Scaled according to the surface gravity of Iapetus which isonly 1/40ththe strength of the surface gravity of Earth! a similar skyscraper on the 900-mile-wide moon of Saturn could reach up15 miles.

A wall-like structure — as wide as it is tall because of strong lateral support, could reach far higher in such a weak gravity field.

So, even with conventional building materials common in the early 21stCentury on Earth, constructing the Great Wall of Iapetus poses no significanttheoreticalproblems (except for the money, of course!). And, for any advanced extraterrestrial materials (nanotubes, carbon fibers, zero-gravity crystalline titanium and steel, etc. ) the practical problems in constructing even such a structure as the Great Wall would be trivial. Especially–

If armies of computer-controlled, robotic construction workers (or even more advanced versions, billions ofnanobots) were involved .

Once this shocking idea (and the even more astounding Cassini evidence ) has been properly assimilated that this extraordinary feature on Iapetus could bea manufacturedartifact– other, equally geometric, non-natural anomalies begin to emerge across the moons exotic two-toned surface (inset, below)!

In this inset (below) is a striking set of clearly defined, astonishing, repeating,three-dimensionalrectilinear surface patterns — imaged in color and located several hundred miles north of the Wall near the boundary between the brown stuff and the white stuff on the leading hemisphere of Iapetus (sunlight from bottom left).

The rectilinearities run preciselynorth/south, east/west.

Clearly these are NOT random, square craters — but remarkable, highly ordered evidence of sophisticated, aligned, repeatingarchitecturalrelief!

A close-up (below) amply confirms this first impression. Note the standard-width, right-angle walls, and the dozens of box-like rooms and buildings contained within those walls .

Close-ups from other sections of this transitional terrain (just west of this image – below) reveal more of this astonishing, three-D honeycombing. Note the aligned edges of the hundreds of square holes in this image and, again, more repeating, right-angle, uniform-width walls. Here, the repeating, rectilinear geometry appears to be mantled with a heavy snowfall .

Here (below), are two close-up sections of the previous image.

The enlargement on the left features a square opening, apparently looking deepbelowthe surface into a rectangular underground tunnel withmultiple, geometric levels.

The close-up on the right shows an equally obvious, multi-storied, rectangular structure — flanked on three 90-degree sides by concave stadium-like features with a, roofless, lattice-like building on the right of the central rectangle.

Smaller, equally geometric and carefully aligned box-like openings appear farther away .

The impression of a vast set of extremely ancientruins most now without roofs, but with ample surviving walls covered both by snow and whatever the brown stuff is is unavoidable.

If the idea of a massive, artificial wall girdling this satellite is difficult to swallow, the existence of thousands of square miles of clearly rectilinearruinson the same airless, icy satellite is definitely over the top.

So, lets examine some more evidence .

Here (below) isa wide angle Cassini color image, taken of the northern polar ice and terminator. At top center (red outline) is an area where the spacecraft is looking almost horizontal to the local surface.

In close-up (below), the intenselyangular– and repetitive — verticalarchitecturalgeometry, and rectilinear design extending across this entire region, is unmistakable and totally unnatural.

Confirmation that something (besides the astonishing equatorial wall) is extendingmilesinto space here, above the polar regions of this 900-mile-wide moon (below) — can be seen in this equatoriallow-res approach color image– taken by Cassini at approximately 500,000 miles, on December 26, 2004.

Note (close-up, below) the string of bright, reflecting objects — hanging (somehow ) wellabovethe satellites limb .

Then, if we look along the southern horizon, we see the same type of anomaly this time a tower-like structure, rising more than a mile above the surrounding terrain (below)

Above it lies a remarkably geometric waffle pattern moreevidence that all on Iapetus is not quite natural.

All pointing toward an equally unnatural, if notextraordinaryexplanation for this moon .

What the helldidArthur know and how?!