WASHINGTON -- A tiny piece of God's design for the universe had been orbiting the cloudy blue planet Neptune for three or four billion years before a scientist named Showalter "discovered" it last week.
Mark Showalter, PhD, is the principal investigator at the Carl Sagan Center for the Study of Life in the Universe at the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute in California. (SETI's professional and amateur investigators have been harkening to music from other worlds since the 1980s and haven't heard a single semiquaver, but that is no reason to stop listening.) The previously unrecorded pebble, which Dr. Showalter noticed while analyzing photographs of Neptune's rings taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, awaits an official name from the International Astronomical Union.
It will not be called Triton, Nereid, Naiad, Thalassa, Despina, Proteus, Galatea, Larissa, Sao, Halimede, Lamomedeia, Psamathe or Neso, which were the only moons Neptune was known to own, before last week.
(Neptune's satellites are named for Grecian nymphs, 50 of whom lived under the sea in a cave with their dad, which is what my daughter is going to do when she hits her teens. Dozens of nymph-o-nyms still are available, including Doto, Seto, Cranto, Cymo and Drymo.)
Astronomer Showalter, who also detected the 18th moon of Saturn (Pan), the 25th and 26th moons of Uranus (Cupid and Mab), and the fourth and fifth moons of Pluto (Kerberos and Styx), reported Neptune Fourteen is a miniscule thing as moons go, a flake of rock and who-knows-what barely 20 kilometres long. In fact, Voyager 2 flew right by in 1989 and missed it completely. So I called the principal investigator and asked him a simple question:
"What difference does it make how many moons Neptune has?"
"That it is number 14 doesn't mean very much by itself," Dr. Showalter calmly answered. "But they are a piece of the story of how that system formed."
Mark Showalter is one of seven billion Earthlings who have looked up at the sky in wonder. As a planetary astronomer, (the field I studied in college before my celestial dreams degraded into sportswriting) he specializes in the ring systems of the gas giants of our solar system.
"How does one feel when one discovers a moon?" I wondered, jealously.
"I've done it before and there's still a rush," Dr. Showalter replied.
"Is there any reason to explore the solar system except in the hope of finding life?" I asked him.
"I'm pretty certain we're not going to find intelligent life on a tiny little rock orbiting Neptune," he said.
The night after Mark Showalter announced the discovery of Neptune Moon Fourteen, Chris Hadfield starred at a reception at the Canadian Embassy in Washington. Most of the men present were in suits and ties, but they made International Space Station Commander Hadfield and his roadie, Dr. Tom Marshburn, wear their Neptune-blue jumpsuits, as if we wouldn't know them in slacks.
Hadfield is one of only 500 spacefarers who have looked down from the sky in awe. Retired from rocketry at the age of 53, he made one fewer voyage into the unknown than did Christopher Columbus -- though, of course, it is only the unknown on the first trip.
I went up to him and noted a new moon of Neptune had just been discovered but, of course, he already knew that.
"If there's a boat leaving for Neptune Fourteen tomorrow," I asked him, "are you on it?"
"No," Hadfield said. "There are some things better done by robots and there are some things better done by people. We don't have the boats to go there."
Like every astronaut and cosmonaut whom I have ever met, Chris Hadfield came down from orbit with a heightened sense of common cause with the people of the planet below. Just as there are no atheists in foxholes, there are no cynics in space.
"It's difficult to get selected as an astronaut and fly in space if you don't have strong convictions," he said. "In space, those convictions get heightened. You find yourself laughing and crying much more."
I tried to picture Major Tom in tears.
"You start to think," Hadfield said, "about all those people you know in, say, Saskatoon, and how they're not that different from the people in a city in Africa that you've never been to -- trying their best, raising their kids -- and how your particular set of loves relates to everything else."
Forty-four years after the first lunar landing, the blue still beckons: seven unwalked planets, 100 large and little moons, at least a million asteroids -- one of them is 14143 Hadfield -- and comets beyond counting. Two paths to the heavens are open: be born a lissome Greek mermaid, or study hard and learn to fly.
Allen Abel is a Brooklyn-born Canadian journalist based in Washington D.C.