Saturday, July 11, 2015
Pluto And Us
WASHINGTON — We need a pick me up. Amid the vandalizing of Palmyra, the imminent extinction of the northern white rhino, the disarray threatening Europe’s most ambitious attempt ever at peaceful unification — amid plague and pestilence and, by God, in the middle of Shark Week — where can humanity turn for uplift?
Meet New Horizons, arriving at Pluto on July 14. Small and light, the fastest spacecraft ever launched, it left Earth with such velocity that it shot past our moon in nine hours. A speeding bullet the size of a Steinway, it has flown 9 1/2 years to the outer edges of the solar system.
To Pluto, the now-demoted “dwarf planet” that lives beyond the Original Eight in the far distant “third zone” of the solar system — the Kuiper Belt, an unimaginably huge ring of rocks and ice and sundry debris where the dwarf is king.
After 3 billion miles, New Horizons will on Tuesday shoot right through Pluto’s mini-planetary system of five moons, the magnificently named Charon, Styx, Nix, Hydra and Kerberos.
Why through? Because, while the other planets lie on roughly the same plane, Pluto and its moon system stick up at an angle to that plane like a giant archery target. New Horizons gets one pass, going straight by the bull’s-eye. No orbiting around, no lingering for months or even years to photograph and study.
No mulligans. And no navigating. Can’t do that when it takes 4 1/2 hours for a message from Earth to arrive. This is a preprogrammed, single-take, nine-day deal.
For what? First, for the science, the coming avalanche of new knowledge. Remember: We didn’t even know there was a Pluto until 85 years ago when astronomer Clyde Tombaugh found a strange tiny dot moving across the star field.
Today, we still know practically nothing. In fact, two of the five moons were not discovered until after New Horizons was launched. And yet next week we will see an entirely new world come to life. “We’re not planning to rewrite any textbooks,” said principal investigator Alan Stern in a splendid New York Times documentary on the mission. “We’re planning to write them from scratch.”
Then there’s the romance. The Pluto fly-by caps a half-century of solar system exploration that has yielded staggering new wonders. Such as Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons, with its vast subterranean ocean under a crust of surface ice, the most inviting potential habitat for extraterrestrial life that human beings will ever reach.
Yes, ever. Promising exoplanets — the ones circling distant stars that we deduce might offer a Goldilocks zone suitable for water-based life — are being discovered by the week. But they are unreachable. The journey to even the nearest would, at New Horizons speed, take 280,000 years. Even mere communication would be absurdly difficult. A single exchange of greetings — “Hi there,” followed by “Back at you, brother” — would take a generation.
It’s the galactic version of the old Trappist monastery joke where every seven years one monk at one meal is allowed one remark. A young novice arrives and after seven years a monk stands up at dinner and says: “The soup is cold.” Seven years of silence. Then another monk stands and says: “The bread is stale.” Seven years later, the now-aging novice rises and says: “If you don’t stop this bickering, I’m outta here.”
Which is what a conversation with Klingons would be like, except with longer intervals. Which is why we prefer to scour our own solar system. And for more than just the science, more than just the romance. Here we are, upright bipeds with opposable thumbs, barely down from the trees, until yesterday unable to fly, to communicate at a distance, to reproduce a sound or motion or even an image — and even today barely able to manage the elementary decencies of civilization — taking close-up pictures and chemical readings of a mysterious world 9 1/2 years away.
One final touch. Every ounce of superfluous weight has been stripped from New Horizons to give it more speed and pack more instruments. Yet there was one concession to poetry. New Horizons is carrying some of Clyde Tombaugh’s ashes. After all, he found the dot. Not only will he fly by his netherworldly discovery, notes Carter Emmart of the American Museum of Natural History, he will become the first human being to have his remains carried beyond the solar system.
For the wretched race of beings we surely are, we do, on occasion, manage to soar.