New Horizons

Unless you live in a cave, you have by now heard something about the New Horizons deep space probe and its incredible success reaching across billions of miles of solar system to capture upclose images of Pluto and its moon, Charon, that were basically mind-blowing.  More on that in a minute.

If you’ve not seen or heard any of the mission FAQ’s that the New Horizons media team released this past week in conjunction with the space probe’s flyby of its target, check them out.  Here are a couple of my favorites:

* The accuracy (timing, speed and relative position) of the probe as it zoomed by Pluto\Charon, given that the craft was launched from planet Earth and traversed some 3 billion miles is akin to: (1) placing a basketball at the teeing ground of a golf range with an 80-miles distance to the hole;  (2) hitting a molecule off of that basketball; (3) having that molecule land in the hole.  Of course, the New Horizon’s team had the ability to make mid-flight, course corrections on route to the “hole” — something that golfers are not capable of doing though I certainly wish it were possible.  (My handicap in golf is astronomical).

* The spacecraft is the size and shape of a grand piano — so please picture a molecule shaped like a grand piano.

* Because Pluto is “way-the-hell-out-there,” the launch energy necessary to get New Horizons to Pluto on time was by far the greatest ever required and achieved for a deep space probe:  by comparison, 10 times the energy required to get a probe to Mars.

What is truly stunning about this journey, which ultimately involved hundreds of millions of dollars in investment and effort all for a flyby that lasted less than a few days, is the quality of the “reveal.”   Basically, Pluto appears on first (and only) pass to be a very dynamic place:  full of water ice mountains, long, pillowy plains of ice and dust formed from various frozen gases, with the prospect of geysers or the upwelling of warmer gases and liquids that reach the surface from a liquid sea below.

Planetary scientists working with very low-resolution, highly pixelated images of Pluto and some really good models of planetary development, had projected a landscape fairly similar to that that New Horizon’s is showing us today, though the monstrous water-ice mountains were not part of the modeled planet-scape.  Those planetary scientists who dared to imagine the geologic and chemical make-up of Pluto’s surface and the seas underneath should be feeling pretty good right now.  Also, we knew before New Horizons’ arrival that methane was venting from portions of the planet.  Now we know more precisely where on the surface the methane is coming from and perhaps soon we’ll understand better why the methane is there.

If you are wondering whether life might be present on Pluto, the answer after New Horizon’s flyby is a definite “possibly.” The surface, reaching -400F at times and with atmospheric pressures barely a sliver of Earth’s, is not a likely home for life.  The below surface seas could be another story.  Taking the very long view, about 5 billion years from now, our Sun will have evolved into a Red Giant, generating sufficient energy to warm up Pluto and perhaps provide just the right temperatures for the existing mix of chemical compounds to cook and stew and yield something that fits our definition of life.  If you happen to have a functioning cyro-sleep chamber, move it and yourself to Europa, climb in and set the alarm accordingly (5bn years from now, Earth may not be doing all that well being so close to a Red Giant.)

What’s are the key takeaways?

  • Science is amazing.
  • The U.S. system of educating scientists and engineers is the best there is (could be better, yes).  Just look at what we are capable of achieving.
  • Planetary/space science captures the imagination and draws young and older minds into the asking and answering of big and important questions about planetary science and why we exist.
  • More and more, everywhere we look — whether relatively close to home, or way out across interstellar space — the evidence grows and grows that life is happening somewhere beyond Earth orbit.
  • If you marvel at and value the news and knowledge coming back from New Horizons, The Hubble Space Telescope or any of our Mars orbiters or rovers, or the probes we’ve sent in the past decade or so to Jupiter (the Juno probe is enroute) and the Moon, let your elected representatives in Washington know you support funding for space science.

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