New Horizons Pluto mission

Pluto. Photo courtesy of NASA.

by Rick Scholes

We can finally say the last planetary bodies of our solar system have been explored. The New Horizons spacecraft has flown past Pluto, the dwarf planet, and it’s moons Charon, Styx, Nix, Kerebos, and Hydra. The unmanned craft has been described – and depicted by cartoonists – as being the size of a baby grand piano. Perhaps it bears some resemblance, except for the large radio dish the the lack of a keyboard. Powered by Plutonium, it contains seven distinct instruments, named Lorri, Alice, Swap, Pepsii, Rex, Ralph, and (rather unimaginatively) SDC. Lorri the photographic imager is the public relations workhorse.

It has sent back to Earth images and a wealth of other scientific data, with much more to come. Designed, built, and launched within a four and a half year period, it then took nearly 10 years to make its 5 billion kilometer journey. A distance so far that it takes the data broadcasts, traveling at light speed, about 5 hours to return to us, expectant earthlings waiting at our computers for news from the outer limits. Before we even knew the closest approach had been a success the craft was already well past Pluto, receding at 50,000 kilometers per hour. It is hurtling faster than anything mankind has ever sent aloft, thanks in part to a ‘gravity assist’ from Jupiter, stealing a bit of the giant planet’s angular momentum. It now enters the Kuiper belt, realm of the comets, and eventually will become another emissary to interstellar space.

Consider this analogy. Imagine there’s a house you’re interested in buying. It’s situated on a country road out of town. You know it’s out there but you can’t see it without the aid of a large telescope, and even then it only appears as a dim blob of reflected light, with no features. You want to check it out. So you set out in the fastest car you can find. Only this car has no brakes. You take along a camera or two, a computer, a radio. You nervously check all the gear as you approach the house. You only have one pass at this because your car has no brakes. Last minute panic: the computer locks up. You reboot it with seconds to spare. The moment arrives. Shutters click. You flash past in an instant, crane your neck to look back, and keep recording images. Knowing that the folks back home are anxious, you pause the data gathering momentarily in order to transmit a small portion of it back to mission control, while keeping one eye for obstacles that might be on the road ahead. You’ve taken so many pictures it will take months to send them all back. And you’re never going home, never living in that house. Maybe your descendants will, but yours was a sacrificial mission.

Regular television was preoccupied with the Pam Am games, nuclear arms deals announcements, and soap operas, relegating Pluto mostly to webcasts. Though I rarely watch broadcasts or podcasts on the internet, I made an exception for New Horizons. There was something stirring about it. Partly it was the memories of the other outer planet flybys at Saturn and Jupiter, the various Mars landers, and those unforgettable moon landings forty-five years ago. Partly it is because Pluto represents a final frontier. There will be no more first visits. All the planets, and even a comet, have now been seen close up.

Loving a controversy, the media have often noted that Pluto is no longer defined as a planet, but rather a ‘dwarf planet’. The astronomical bureaucrats demoted it in 2006, less than a year after New Horizons was launched. No matter. The project team ignored definitions and celebrated their achievement with applause and cheers, and waved little American flags. Perhaps in these days of the declining American empire, our cousins feel the need to reassert their global leadership. The project managers were impressively well spoken and media friendly. They gave us a mouth-watering meal, served with a tablespoon of nerdiness. They balanced excitement nicely against their natural scientific caution to avoid premature conclusions. Science doesn’t boast. (Well, maybe just a little.) The press conferences were carefully crafted public relations events. Presenters were male and female, black and white, scientists and managers. Social media input was included in the question periods. Hip.

This was entirely a USA project, as they trumpeted regularly. The days of space shuttles and moon missions are long gone and even the space station is an international endeavour, as it should be. So this was an opportunity to wave their flags, and wave them they did. It was occasionally mentioned, mostly as an afterthought, that millions of people around the world were watching and enjoying. I hope they were. I prefer to frame this as a human success.

Flag waving aside, I felt proud of New Horizons and happy for those that toiled to make it happen. It’s a gift to humanity. People of the world have done a good thing. Could we have fed more people by saving the dollars spent here? Yes. Would we have done so? No. You can’t measure the dollar value of things like discovering the new world, climbing Mt. Everest, and walking on the moon. Or mapping Pluto. We do these things and it gives us hope. Look at what can be achieved when we put our minds to it! It’s the antithesis of terrorism and destruction. It’s positive, it’s enriching, and it’s progress. Choices must always be made when striving for new horizons.