Thursday, July 16, 2015

Dreams Of New Horizons

My Very Excited Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas.

That was how my third grade teacher, Ms. Griffin, taught me and my classmates to remember the order of the planets of the Solar System: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and Pluto. Learning about the planets, like learning about the dinosaurs, is one of those few things that almost everyone who has passed through the American education system can count on. As far back as I can remember, I knew that Mars is red, that Jupiter is the biggest, that Saturn has rings, that Mercury is the closest. . . and that Pluto is the farthest.

Amidst a strange and constantly changing world, the fact that there were nine planets, from Mercury out to Pluto, seemed like one of the few constants I could count on. As I got older, math class got harder, history class got more complicated, health class got more embarrassing. Even the world maps changed, with the big red bulk of the Soviet Union giving way to seemingly dozens of smaller bits of different colors that had unpronounceable names. But I could always count on those nine planets.

It's all different now, of course. When I graduated from high school in 1994, not a single planet outside our Solar System had yet been discovered. Since then, thousands of extra-solar have been found and more are being discovered with every passing day. Moreover, the scientists are telling us that Pluto isn't really a planet and that there are probably lots of other worlds like it orbiting in that hazy, dark realm out there on the fringes of our Solar System. All the planets I had learned about as an excited schoolboy, it turned out, were nothing special. And Pluto was the least special of them all.

Hogwash. On July 14, 2015, Pluto had its big moment in the limelight.

Years ago, I was one of thousands of people around the country who sent letters to our representatives in Congress imploring them to appropriate funds for NASA that would allow it to send a robotic spacecraft to explore Pluto. Partly as a result of the huge outpouring of civic activism, the funds were appropriated and, in early 2006, the New Horizons probe was launched. After a journey of more than nine years and more than three billion miles, it flew past Pluto two days ago. While doing so, the seven scientific instruments on the plucky little spacecraft gathered a treasure trove of data on Pluto, as well as its large moon Charon and its four smaller moons. This priceless data will rewrite the science textbooks on the Solar System and help us sharpen our understand of exactly how the Solar System was formed.

It will take more than a year for all the data collected to be downloaded from the New Horizon's onboard computer. Yet even in these early days, its discoveries are already opening new mysteries. It had always been assumed that Pluto and its large moon Charon were similar worlds, but they in fact seem to be very different from one another. It had always been assumed that the surface of Pluto would be extremely ancient and covered with impact craters, but the initial close-up images show very few impact craters, indicating that the planet's surface is geologically quite young. All of this is astonishing and will keep our scientists busy for a very, very long time.

It was very fitting that the spacecraft carried one ounce of the ashes of Clyde Tombaugh, the Kansas farmboy-turned-astronomer who discovered Pluto in 1930. Now that the flyby of Pluto is completed, the New Horizons probe will hopefully be directed to use its remaining fuel to fly past one of the smaller of the "Kuiper Belt objects" that lies in its path. Then, it will sail on to wander the Milky Way Galaxy forever. This means that Tombaugh is the first human being whose remains are leaving the Solar System.

I'm a history geek first and foremost, but I have a lot of the space geek in me, too. I have been fascinated by space ever since my father took me out into the countryside in 1986 to look at Halley's Comet through our small family telescope. In the summer of 2000, as an eager history graduate student at what was then Southwest Texas State University, I was lucky enough to participate in the NASA Oral History Project, interviewing engineers throughout Central Texas who had worked on the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs. I now own a decent telescope and very much enjoy breaking it out in the back yard or taking it on camping trips.

If you ask me, anyone who reads about the Pluto flyby and isn't enthralled has to be a person utterly devoid of a soul. We live in an age of mediocrity, in a society more interested in banal and inane popular culture rather than spiritual uplift and intellectual achievement. This is dissolving our spirit like a steady dripping of acid. Yet occasionally something happens which goes a certain way towards restoring my faith. Seeing the ecstatic faces of the engineers and scientists in the control room of New Horizons when confirmation was received that the spacecraft had survived its encounter with Pluto was one of those moments.

Thank you and congratulations to the whole New Horizons team. And thank you and congratulations to that lonely little spacecraft out there on the edge of the Solar System. Godspeed and have many new adventures!

No comments:

Post a Comment