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The Ring we share

Copyright © 1991, Vance Haemmerle

Just out of Graduate School with a Master's Degree in Astronomy, I was deep into the most exciting events of my life, working behind the scenes as an associate to the world's top planetary scientists on the last new planetary reconnaissance of our lifetime.

After a torturous twelve-year flight, Voyager 2 reached Neptune, its final encounter before it broke the bonds of our Sun and began its never-ending interstellar journey. A voyager in the true sense of the word, this small robot at the frontiers of our solar system, billions of miles from home was our link to this mysterious planet. The views of its mechanical eyes illuminated the television screens of our small cubicles and offices on the third floor of building 264 at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

It was the early afternoon of August 25th, 1989, just hours after Voyager's closest approach to Neptune. Awake for almost two days straight, dreary eyed yet full of adrenaline and not wanting to miss a single image, I struggled to keep alert as we all worked feverishly to keep up with the torrent of information.

[Two rings] After a long stint at looking for new satellites in ring mosaic images, I took a break to visit Sarah Crane, a summer undergraduate intern from Georgia, in the next cubicle. She was a young woman of fair hair and freckled face and in the days approaching the encounter we had become fast friends who enjoyed each other's company. In the dark we looked at the flickering image of two thin rings set against the planet received from the spacecraft a few hours before.

Sarah was measuring the position of one of Neptune's newly discovered satellites to help track its orbit. Simply titled ``1989N4'' because it was the fourth one discovered, it was at the very top of the frame and she was busy cursoring it up. As I was watching her work, I thought I spied an ethereal ring, set inside of and parallel to the others. I asked her to adjust the contrast of the picture to bring out what I thought I had seen. After a few tries there it was, and she saw it too -- barely visible but still in all its glory. Jumping from my seat I exclaimed ``There's a third ring!'' Two members of the Voyager Imaging Team rushed in to see and we all hurried to analyze the image and get the news out to the world.

[Enhanced showing three] As the ring reappeared in the ensuing hours, the handful of people who knew the truth joked about how it was ``Vance's ring.'' Yet in the whole scheme of things, my being there was not that important, for soon after, the diffuse ring displayed its true brilliance when it was viewed from behind, with the sun's light filtering through it. My discovery only allowed humanity to know of this ring a day sooner.

Then suddenly, fate stole Sarah away from me the very next day. When I heard she was leaving I rushed to meet her at the elevator. We exchanged glances and shared the unspoken knowledge that if only time had permitted, we would have grown much closer. In a spontaneous gesture she hugged me, and through this solitary embrace we held each other and yearned for what could have been.

Needless to say, astronomers, in their concise way, have since labeled our ring ``N42'' indicating its central radius of 42,000 kilometers from Neptune's center. Such a mundane name cannot convey its splendor and beauty.

When I see images of that magnificent blue planet set among the stars, circumscribed by rings of ice, I often think of Sarah and of the ring we share, not on our fingers but in the heavens.

Postscript: After the mission, the IAU (International Astronomical Union) gave the ring the name ``Galle,'' after a co-discoverer of Neptune.