Opinion: Space proble captures images of Pluto
CONNECTING THE DOTS
Free Press Opinion Columnist
Golly, I can recall as a kid that I loved Pluto, the Disney dog who got his name a year after the planet was named.
In those long-ago days few kids understood that Earth was a planet, let alone knowing anything about Pluto.
Suddenly, last week everyone was treated to the success of the New Horizons space probe, launched by NASA nearly 10 years ago. I’ve yet to find anyone who remembers the launch, and suddenly it was flitting past Pluto to take some photos.
Then, at 31,000 mph it continued on past the end of our known solar system into the unknown.
New Horizons is traveling 1 million miles a day, which seems like a bunch except that Pluto is 3 billion miles from Mother Earth!
Unless you’re really into astronomy and space, you likely didn’t know about this project. So, what’s this all about?
For one thing, consider the talent it took to even make the thing.
For another, consider how fabulously well that decade-old technology worked, and continues to work. (As a side note, it took longer to get NASA to authorize the flyby than for the probe to get to Pluto. It seems like the big stuff, like the space station and the shuttles, were more important than a simple scientific project. Pluto was in the works in 1990, canceled in 2000, revived in 2003 and launched in 2006.)
You can find a quick summary of the mission in the Economist (and daily reports in most newspapers): “July 14 will see the finale of the Heroic Age of space exploration. On that day a visitor from Earth will fly past Pluto and head off into the Kuiper belt — the icy, rubble-strewn fringe of the sun’s sphere of influence. In doing so this visitor, called New Horizons, will fulfill an aspiration that began a mere 60 years ago; to turn the planets from being little more than night lights into palpable worlds of known geography.”
Simply, Pluto completes the mapping of all our known planets.
Everyone has seen photos sent back from the 100-second flyby of Pluto. It’s so far away it takes four-and-a-half hours for the first bits of the 15 minutes of data sent each day to reach Earth. It will take 19 months for New Horizons to send back all the data from the Pluto flyby.
Self-taught astronomer Clyde Tombaugh found Pluto in 1930. It was officially confirmed and named at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Ariz., on March 13, 1930.
Romantically, about an ounce of his ashes is aboard the spacecraft. And, one of the science packages aboard is named for Venetia Burney, who as an 11-year-old English girl suggested the name Pluto for the new planet. (Maybe honoring PL, Percival Lovell?)
New Horizons is already several million miles off toward the end of our universe. Years from now we’re surely going to get huge surprises of a bigger universe. They will be fabulous details of what lies beyond.
Free Press columnist Ken Johnson is founder of the Grand Junction Free Press and former owner/publisher of The Daily Sentinel. He spends his time between the Grand Valley and California.
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