NASA has put together a short animation from some of the images taken by New Horizons, showing amazing detail of the mountain range and one of the smoother sections. This is only the beginning. Think of it! We are all part of the generation of Humanity that got to see Pluto up close for the first time! (Actually, come to think of it, I have lived to see, with the rest of the world, every planet in the solar system up close for the first time. That’s pretty amazing.)
How can you not heart Pluto? I’m sure the aliens who painted this feature on the surface of the planet were much nicer than the ones I wrote about last time.
The heart-shaped feature has been provisionally named Tombaugh Regio for farmer-astronomer Clyde Tombaugh, who discovered Pluto in 1930. (And whom I got to hear speak at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, back in the late 1980s.)
Today’s the day! NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft will whiz past Pluto at a distance of only 7800 miles today—in fact, by the time you read this, will already have made the flyby! This little spacecraft has sent us some amazing pictures of Pluto and Charon, and if everything goes right, they will only get better. The spacecraft will be out of contact with Earth during the flyby, the better to frantically shoot pictures and hoover up as much data as it can during the brief encounter. That data will be sent back at a very slow bit-rate, because of the distance, and will take over a year to be transmitted in its entirety!
I’ve always felt that Pluto, way out in the dark of farthest interplanetary space, was one of our most fascinating planets. And yes, the astronomers have agreed now that it’s a dwarf planet—but to me, it will always be our ninth planet.
In fact, when I was a kid, a favorite science fiction novel was called Secret of the Ninth Planet, by Donald A. Wollheim (who later went on to found DAW Books). It involved a kid traveling on an emergency expedition to visit all the planets of the solar system, to learn why the sun was getting dimmer. They found out, all right—it was a bunch of crummy, scum-sucking aliens, who had planted special antennae on each planet, to somehow draw off power from the sun for the aliens’ nefarious purposes. It took cleverness, grit, and maybe a few nukes, but we took care of that. I read that story at least a dozen or two dozen times when I was at a certain age.
Julia Powell, age 15, is in high school. Her group’s science experiment was on its way to the International Space Station aboard the Space-X rocket when it was blown to smithereens by the failure of the Falcon 9 booster last Sunday.
That’s got to hurt.
What’s got to hurt even more is that it was the second time her experiment was blown up in a launch failure. Yes, she and fellow students had their first space-bound experiment aboard the Antares rocket that exploded on launch last October.
Those students are learning just how hard spaceflight can be. But God bless them, they’re not giving up. You go, girls and guys.
Yes, today is Asteroid Day, intended to heighten our awareness of our planet’s vulnerability to assault by Nature, in the form of asteroids that could smack us and reduce cities—or even civilization itself—to rubble. The threat is not imminent, perhaps, but it’s certainly real. And some of our agencies are starting to get serious about planning ways to protect ourselves.
Proposed methods of diverting asteroids range from painting one side of a threatening asteroid white (to change the balance of sunlight pressure and outgassing), to using ion traction motors, to repurposing something else that threatens our world: nuclear weapons.
I like to think of this day as also celebrating the opportunity to do cool and constructive things with asteroids, like mining them for water and metals, and hollowing them out to live in them. We’re working on that, too.
Meanwhile, I’ll leave you with a picture of the biggest asteroid in the inner solar system, Ceres, currently being orbited by the Dawn spacecraft—and its mysterious white spots. Alien winter Olympics? Alien ice cream stands? I guess we’ll find out together.
Want to be mesmerized for three and a half minutes? Open this on a good monitor, click the “full screen” icon in the lower right of this video, turn up the sound, and sit back and journey the solar system. See if you recognize the voice.
Yesterday’s unmanned test flight of NASA’s Orion deep-space craft is a great boost for those of us who want to see us back in the game of venturing beyond the Earth. We’ve had sensational successes in robotic missions; but not since the 1970s, with the end of the Apollo Moon program, has a human being flown beyond low-Earth orbit. It’s high time we got back out there, and got on with the challenge of making us a spacefaring, multi-world species. Here’s what the launch looked like:
Also of note is that the launch rode the fires of a Delta IV Heavy rocket, which actually uses advanced, American-made rocket engines. (Many of our crucial space launches nowadays ride on Russian-made engines—including military launches, which is really weird and unsettling, when you think about it. Nothing against the very smart Russian rocket designers, but given the political direction of Russia these days, I’m not happy being so dependent on them for access to space.)
I only wish we were giving this program the proper funding, so that the development of deep-space capability weren’t being stretched out over decades. The next launch of Orion isn’t scheduled until 2017.
As I type this, I don’t know if Philae has yet run out of battery power. In case you’ve been living in a mine this week, Philae dropped across space to a landing, but took a few unfortunate bounces and ended up resting on a precarious spot with too much shadow for its solar cells. I wish we could send it a light! I’d even contribute my Stanley car jumpstart battery, if it would help. Well, I’m sure Philae’s clever scientist-parents will make the most of it. And I can’t wait to find out what they learn. [Update: Apparently it has run out of battery power, after drilling into the comet, but before sending data back. Ow, that hurts. But there may be opportunity for it to recharge slowly, in the coming months, and maybe come back to life for a while. Let’s hope.]
It’s amazing how little we knew about comets until we started visiting them in robotic person. We used to think they were basically dirty snowballs. Now we see that they’re much more like asteroids, but with some snow and ice to provide outgassing for the halo.
As I looked at the pictures of the comet, I found myself thinking of John Bandicut, fictional space pilot in my novel Neptune Crossing. John had to smack just such a comet really really hard, to keep it from hitting Earth. Looking at those pictures of a real comet, I reflected on how Bandie was one mongo brave dude to do such a thing. Even if he did have alien science working for him, and was half out of his mind with silence fugue. When I wrote the scene, I knew he was brave. But I don’t think I knew just how brave.
Thanks, Bandie, for riding that other comet! (Even if you are fictional, and in the future.)
This has been a wrenching week for space enthusiasts, and especially space entrepreneurs. I just read the heartbreaking news that Virgin Galactic’s Spaceship Two exploded during a powered test flight today, killing one of the two pilots and seriously injuring the other. (This follows the explosion, a few days ago, of Orbital Science’s Antares cargo rocket, on liftoff for the International Space Station.) Both were privately funded space ventures.
Spaceship Two, of course, was slated to carry paying passengers on brief excursions into space (suborbital, not orbital). It is the offspring of Spaceship One, which a few years ago won the Ansari X-Prize for being the first privately funded craft to reach space, and to turn around and do it again a short time later. Spaceship One was funded largely by Microsoft’s Paul Allen, while Spaceship Two is funded by Sir Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Galactic.
What this means for the future of Spaceship Two is not yet clear. It was flying with a new fuel today from that used in previous test flights. Perhaps that caused the rocket engine to explode, or perhaps not; it’s too soon to know.
As we’ve heard more than once from those who know a lot more than I do, “Space is hard.” There will be accidents. My heart goes out to those hurt by this one, the pilots and their families and friends, and all of those associated with this venture. But I’m going to echo here a quote that my colleague Geoff Landis echoed from someone else on Facebook:
“It is not the critic who counts; nor the one who points out how the strong person stumbled, or where the doer of a deed could have done better.
The credit belongs to the person who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; who does actually strive to do deeds; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotion, spends oneself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement; and who at worst, if he or she fails, at least fails while daring greatly.
Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those timid spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.”
— Theodore Roosevelt
This is how I will remember Spaceship Two:
Spaceship Two during an earlier, successful test flight. LA Times photo
I’ve written from time to time about the encouraging progress being made in privately funded efforts to get us into space. SpaceX has certainly had some great successes lately. And so has Orbital Sciences. But I suppose I should note the bad along with the good. This failure of the Antares cargo rocket bound for the ISS, yesterday, had to be a huge blow to the folks at Orbital Sciences. But thankfully no one was hurt.
It’s yet another reminder that space travel isn’t easy, and won’t be for a long time to come. Let’s hope they can find the cause of this, fix it, and get back onto the Star Road. Because as Tsiolkovsky said, we can’t live in the cradle forever.
Addendum: The Antares rocket was powered with refurbished Soviet-made rocket engines. This in itself isn’t unusual, since several of our major launch vehicles, the Atlas and Delta, are now powered by Russian-made rocket engines (though I believe of a later design). Whether this is a good idea or not is an entirely different question.