(Picture from here.)
It’s no secret what’s been on my mind for the last week.
Like every other one of these missions, it changes everything we know about the solar system and planets in general.
Pluto’s one of those odd little places in the solar system that I thought about but didn’t really consider. Oh, yeah– ninth planet from the sun, isn’t it? (Not anymore, Chucko! Ha! Ha! Ha! — Neil DeGrasse Tyson) Discovered by Clyde Tombaugh. Cold as hell.
I first started thinking about Pluto as a place when I read Have Space Suit, Will Travel. Which has Tombaugh Station on the Moon and some very cold and courageous action that takes place on Pluto. (I’ll talk about that book someday.)
I thought about it again when I read Niven’s World of Ptaavs. In that book, Pluto used to be a satellite of Neptune that was knocked into a circumsolar orbit by the impact of an alien ship a billion years ago. (I should do a consideration of works past on Larry Niven.)
And I’ve been thinking about it for the last year.
I have an odd take on these long term satellite missions. NASA can always get me to write my congressman or senator for any long term space science mission. Mercury? Go. Here’s my check. Venus? Should have been there for the last decade. Take the charge card. Mars? Do you even have to ask?
That said, once launched, they only register a little bit in my day to day thinking. Until they get near their destination. Once they’re in place, I can’t get enough of them.
Now we have some lovely pictures and over the next year we’re going to get some really good scientific data.
But for the moment, we have to content ourselves with images.
And what images we have. There’s the one above. But we’ve seen mountains of ice. Canyons on Charon. Both Charon and Pluto are likely active. How? Why? We don’t know yet. Some think it’s radioactive mineral decay. Or possibly a slow freezing ocean– I like that one but I can’t think for the life of me why an underground ocean on Pluto could remain unfrozen for long.
New Horizons runs on plutonium. (Cool, right?) It cranked past Pluto for one flyby at a blistering 14.51 km/s. How fast is that? 14,510 m/s. 60 mph is about 27 m/s. So it’s 542 times that. It’s about five times the speed of the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird. And it’s been slowing down all this time.
NH launched at 16.26 km/s relative to earth but earth’s motion gave it a boost to 45 km/s. It slowed down to 19 km/s by the time it neared Jupiter. Jupiter’s motion brought it back up to about 23 km/s and from then on it coasted to meet Pluto.
Here’s a picture of its trajectory. (See here.) I’d like to see it linger but you can see that would be hard to do. It would need a lot of propellant and power to turn.
It’s now on its way to the Kuiper Belt running on about the same power as a nightlight. It was so streamlined for the mission that it’s going to take another year and a half to get all that data back to us.
Which is fine with me. If it had been heavier it couldn’t have gotten there as fast and a lot of the researchers might have died before ever knowing if the probe was successful. As it was, work was started on the probe in 1990 and launched in 2006. 25 years from start to finish. (There’s a whole story of the stumbling drive to get it funded in the wiki article. Worth reading.)
Maybe it will meet other Kuiper Belt objects. We will see.
That said, New Horizons also saddens me.
We are really, really good at this. Think of Voyager. Think of Cassini. Think of Chandra. Think of Hubble. Think of New Horizons. We’ve sent out comparatively cheap robot missions. Sure, they cost more than a Buick. The Iraq War cost us between 7-10 million dollars a day. That’s a New Horizons mission every 10 days. A Cassini mission couple of months. And we did that for years. We fight over pennies but are perfectly willing to toss billions down the drain.
But shake it off. Glory in the moment.
Okay. We’ve done the nine planets. (Suck it, Neil.) Where do we go next?
Robots on the moon building habitats is my choice. But a nearly permanent presence around Jupiter like Cassini would be nice.
Addendum: FYI. Dr. Tyson is one of my favorite people on the planet. But I side with Stephen Colbert here.