Astronomy is facing a problem.
The ESA have released a truly incredible piece of footage from the Mars Express probe. It features Deimos (one of the two moons of Mars) passing across the probes field of view, with Jupiter clearly visible in the background. As long as you have even a passing understanding of the distance between the two, and maybe the size of Jupiter, you can appreciate the phenomenal scale of this image and what it is showing. On an even simpler note, and requiring no understanding of those things at all, it is at least possible to appreciate the phenomenal achievement of sending a probe off to Mars, have it orbit around for several years, and capture a beautifully focussed and exposed image of one of the smallest moons in our solar system passing in front of the biggest object other than the sun itself. A quick browse on Facebook reveals most people struggle to get a well focussed shot of a person stood a meter away in a relatively well lit club (although, admittedly, as far as I’m aware Mars Express is teetotal).
So, what does this video look like? Have a look for yourself:
Impressive yes? A crystal clear image. Two separate celestial bodies, separated by light-minutes of distance. And yet. It does look a bit like a cheap flash animation doesn’t it? In fact one of the first things that came to my mind was this.
The problem here is that we are absolutely spoiled by decades of developing CGI, and a background of a love for sci-fi. We are used to the idea of technology so far beyond our current capabilities that when people are presented with what is actually available, they are disappointed. Look at the dumb rush to get iPads and Kinect systems in the vague hope it might transport people to a Minority Report-style future.
I can appreciate the splendour of the video, but it still looks slightly unreal. I’ve been brought up on Babylon 5, Star Wars and Stargate SG1. Even these dated shows would hesitate to show images like this. We are too used to a hyper-reality. The real question, then, is whether we should be looking for a step back? Should sci-fi be presenting more realistic images or does that destroy the fundamental point of sci-fi? Perhaps more importantly, when do I get a spaceship with lasers and a hyperdrive?
There’s more stuff from the ESA on the Deimos image here.