The last time we did a flyby of a planet, I was in high school. It was 1989 — Bush the Elder was President — and we had a TV on in my physics class showing us a live feed from NASA of the Voyager 2 flyby of Neptune. I was enthralled … everyone was. Here was a world we had only glimpsed through a telescope and now it was so close you could touch it.
(I could say something about that inspired me to enter astronomy but that would be a lie. I liked astronomy but it never occurred to me to do it for a living until my junior year of college.)
I felt some of that excitement last night as we awaited the signal from New Horizons that would indicate a successful flyby. And today we have some stunning images coming down. Here is Charon, Pluto’s moon, that was a dot even for the Hubble Space Telescope:
You can read some of the details of the picture over at Bad Astronomy.
It’s impossible for me to express how much I love this … all of it. I love the fiddly engineering and amazing work that go into planning a mission. I love the facilities down at Goddard where they do every test imaginable on the hardware of upcoming missions. I love watching the rockets leap from the pad on a pillar of fire. I love the seemingly impossible task of sending a probe over a nine-year three-billion-mile mission and having it still work. I love the technical jargon as the Mission Operations Center monitors the spacecraft (a lot of which I now understand, having worked for a NASA mission). I love the excitement space aficionados and even hardened astronomers feel as the images come down and reveal a distant and mysterious world. It is all exciting and wonderful and thrilling and inspiring.
Here’a closeup of that heart-shaped region of Pluto.
Pluto has vast mountains of ice, canyons miles deep, a surface that was repaved within the last hundred million years by some process we can only guess at right now. In a few hours, New Horizons gathered data that will keep scientists busy for years and may change our understanding of the Kuiper Belt.
I’ve said this before about our space program: this is the way to waste taxpayer money. You want to talk to me about American exceptionalism? This is American exceptionalism. America is defined by many things but our exploration of space has to be our country’s greatest achievement. We’ve sent probes to every planet; we’ve put men on the moon; we’ve glimpsed the fires of creation through space telescopes. No other nation can match us. Russia sorta could for a while (and right now, they’re embarrassingly the only means of getting astronauts into space). Europe sorta can in their European way. India and China are trying to get things going. But when you really break it down, we are the country of space. We are the explorers. We are the pioneers. And this a commitment we should be devoting more resources to, not less.
Last year, the Houston Chronicle ran a great series about the foundering of our space policy. The big problem I see is that no President has been really committed to it. They come up with their pet projects — a mission to Mars, an asteroid capture, a return to the Moon — and that gets vaguely funded only to have another pet project to take its place when the presidency changes hands. What we need is a more realistic long-term strategy, something NASA can commit to for the next twenty years or more. NASA’s focus should be astrophysics, identifying potentially dangerous asteroids, continuing to explore the Solar System with unmanned probes and, most importantly, trying to devise cheaper ways of getting people and cargo into space. The last part is the only way human exploration of space will ever be feasible.
This should go hand-in-hand with supporting private space programs and commercial exploitation of space. What I’d really like to see is a bunch of billionaires get together, pool their funds, and set a course for the next few decades of private space flight, with NASA committed to supporting them.
But that’s tomorrow. Today, enjoy the amazing pictures of a distant world coming down from New Horizons. And thank your stars that you’re part of a species smart enough to think of this and a country rich enough and daring enough to pull it off.
(Post Scriptum: I said this on Twitter, but will mention it here. I sometimes get asked what I think about Pluto no longer being a planet. My opinion is this: call it what you want.
I understand why the change was made. If Pluto is a planet, that means Eris, Haumea, Ceres and Makemake have to be planets, to be consistent. And it means that, in a few decades, we might have identified hundreds of planets. Pluto is very different from the other planets and much more like the vast sea of Kuiper Belt objects that probably lurks out there. This doesn’t take away from Clyde Tombaugh’s achievement. On the contrary, he discovered something even more amazing than Planet X.
But … I really don’t think it would have killed us to just call Pluto a planet for historical reasons. Consistency is, after all, the hobgoblin of small minds. And Pluto doesn’t care what you call it.)