Look closely. There’s little Pluto, ready for its close-up.
The orphan of the solar system — unceremoniously booted in 2006 from the roster of planets for being a mere dwarf planet — is now the center of astronomical attention. NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft will fly tantalizingly close to Pluto today. The voluminous data and the photos New Horizons will send back — with their potential for unprecedented detail and clarity — have scientists salivating.
Every aspect of this mission is awe-inspiring. New Horizons, the fastest spacecraft ever launched, is the size of a grand piano. In 9 1/2 years it has traveled 3 billion miles, so far that its signals take 4 1/2 hours to reach flight controllers at Johns Hopkins University. And, the spacecraft is still intact. So far. Pluto’s moons and the space dust that orbits Pluto pose dangers.
This is a feel-good moment for an industry that has seen the failure of three International Space Station cargo ships — two American, one Russian — in the past 10 months. The most recent was the explosion in June of an unmanned SpaceX rocket carrying supplies.
But it’s bittersweet, too. The Pluto flyby is the final stop in NASA’s mission to explore every planet in our solar system (Pluto wasn’t downgraded until seven months after New Horizons launched). The New Horizons team hopes to push out to even farther reaches of the solar system after Pluto, but no grand new expeditions are on the horizon. The phase of exploration embodied by Mariner, Viking and Voyager is coming to a close. The future hinges on a debate involving budgets, risks, priorities, and the roles to be played by public and private enterprise.
As much as we still don’t know about space, we can say this with certainty: Amazing discoveries have been made. The boundaries of our knowledge have been extended. Imaginations have been unleashed.
So let’s celebrate New Horizons and the people behind it and what we will learn from this remarkable achievement. And let’s salute Pluto, the celestial dog finally getting its day.