Let's Go to Pluto!
Yes, True is about weird news. More importantly, it's about thinking, which implies a quest for knowledge and understanding. That's most evident in Randy's editorials; here are two of them on the same subject, starting with one from May 2002:
Weekly Weird News
You already know I'm a space junkie. One of my former colleagues at JPL got a mission to Pluto up and running -- the only planet we haven't sent a probe to yet. It's tough these days to get probes built and launched, not because of technology but politics. A reporter once asked my friend "What is the most difficult part of the mission to Pluto?" He said that was easy: "the part from here to Washington." He was too right: the mission was canceled because, Washington says, at $800 million it was over budget. The problem was it wasn't really over budget: the final cost estimate was actually $496 million. Former NASA Administrator Dan Goldin admitted later that they needed $200 million extra for Mars missions, so they took it from Pluto, which killed that mission. After all, Mars is a sexier planet, in part because it will take so long to get to Pluto (nearly 10 years!)
But there's new hope: NASA requested proposals for a new mission to the Pluto-Charon dual planetary system, with a $500 million price cap (hmmmm, maybe they shouldn't have canceled the last one after all?!) In a development that I think is healthy, several teams bid for it, which helps drive costs down. A team led by the Boulder branch of the Southwest Research Institute won, and it includes a flyby of the unexplored Kuiper Belt just beyond Pluto. I attended a very interesting briefing by the mission's Principal Investigator, Dr. Alan Stern. They're now at a critical stage: you guessed it, the government wants to cancel it again! The mission is conspicuously absent from the 2003 Bush budget. There are significant scientific reasons to study Pluto. Stern says: "Pluto-Charon itself is also the only known binary planet, and has more complex seasons than either Earth or Mars. The Kuiper Belt is a region of the solar system where planetary accretion was arrested in mid-stride during the birth of the solar system, and we don't know why. Despite that, we do know it is a treasure trove for understanding planetary formation in much the same way that an archaeological dig tells us about ancient societies."
There are great reasons for getting going now: as Pluto moves away from the sun in its orbit, its atmosphere will freeze and fall as snow, and it won't be warm enough to revaporize it until Pluto gets close to the sun again, in about 200 years! Worse, because Pluto is tilted so far on its axis, as it gets further out more and more of its northern hemisphere will be shadowed. So if we want to SEE it within the next 200+ years, we must get going soon. Understanding the origins of our solar system is worth less than half the cost of a B-2 bomber or, to bring it closer to home, about a quarter of what Americans spent on Easter candy this year. Join me in supporting the mission to Pluto.
And the second editorial, after attending the mission launch:
23 January 2006 Update: Mission Launched!
Long-Time Readers May Remember that back in May 2002, I wrote an editorial in support of a planned mission to the only planet in our solar system that we hadn't gone to yet: Pluto. (The probe will also look around in the Kuiper Belt after it passes the Pluto/Charon binary ice dwarf system, where it's theorized that there could be 100,000 planetoids, with perhaps 1,000 being the size of Pluto, but I'm talking about the nine known planets in our system. If that's news to you, you get a sliver of understanding why it is interesting to study this portion of our solar system!)
Anyway, that was 3-1/2 years ago, and the mission did get funded, partly because of letters of support for the mission by people interested in learning more about What's Out There. (That's people in general; I certainly don't claim credit that it was True readers who turned the tide!) Still, Alan Stern, the Principal Investigator for the Pluto mission, appreciated my drumming up public support for the project. I was quite surprised that he not only remembered it after all this time, but wanted to show his appreciation for it in a very special way: my wife and I were among his invited guests to watch the launch of the spacecraft toward Pluto.
It was spectacular: the Atlas V rocket leaped off the pad, rising much faster than even the Shuttle. They used a big rocket: 2.5 million pounds of thrust to lift a mere 1,050 lb spacecraft. Why? Because it needs to move fast to get to Pluto in a reasonable amount of time. In fact, New Horizons to Pluto will be the fastest man-made object ever, cruising at 47,000 mph once it gets a 4 kps gravity assist from Jupiter. But because Pluto is three billion miles away, even at that speed it's still going to take over nine years to get there!
I spent 10 years working at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, but never got to go to a launch. (I did, however, get passes to see two Space Shuttle landings in the California desert, including STS-26, aka "The first one after the Challenger explosion.") This mission is not managed by JPL, but rather by the Southwest Research Institute, and the payload was not built by JPL, but rather by the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University. I think it's terrific that the space game is being "widened" from NASA, and hope that trend continues.
It's about time we understood our own solar system better. If indeed there are 1,000 Pluto-like, Pluto-sized planets out there, it's not only time to understand them, but to realize that Pluto isn't an icy anomaly; rather, it would be the norm for planets in our solar system, and wet, warm Earth would be the real anomaly.
Rocket Scientists and Other Interesting People
It's very, very cool to witness a rocket launch. But it's even better to stand around and talk with the type of nerdy people who go to rocket launches! You hear all sorts of interesting stories.
One story I already knew: the Pluto mission got started when the U.S. Postal Service unveiled a new set of stamps, on 1 October 1991, at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The set of ten stamps showed the nine planets (plus our moon) and a shot of the main spacecraft that had visited it. They were unveiled at JPL since the Lab has primary responsibility for the robotic spacecraft sent to explore our solar system. I still worked there; I remember it well, and remember being troubled by one glaring detail on the stamps.
That glaring detail: Pluto didn't have a spacecraft next to it, just the words "not yet explored". That really irked Rob Staehle of JPL. Rob was my first project boss when I was hired, and he went from the stamp unveiling to a friend's office to talk about starting a Pluto mission. Later, when Rob got the formal go-ahead to start the mission plans, he called Pluto's discoverer, Clyde Tombaugh, on the phone and asked for permission to visit "his planet"!
That mission was later canceled for political reasons, and here's the part of the story I didn't know until I got to Cape Canaveral for the launch: Astronomer David Levy (see photo in this section) was Tombaugh's biographer, and Rob and I were at his table at a pre-launch party when he told the story of how some guy at JPL had called Clyde for permission to go to Pluto, and how touched he was to be asked for "permission". And sure enough, that was Rob, and he was able to fill in the details for us. It was the first Rob had heard how touched Clyde was by the gesture.
It's just classy for a mission planner to make such a call, and I'm quite proud of Rob for thinking to do it. Here's his mission inspiration:
It's also classy to invite the Tombaugh family to the launch. Not just Patsy, his widow, but also his children and their spouses. I assume that was Alan Stern's idea; he did a great job of remembering people who made an impact on the mission. In other words, there are a lot of classy people in the space business.
We met lots of other interesting people while sitting around waiting for the weather to clear so they could launch. I already knew Alan Stern, the Principal Investigator of the mission, who invited us to the launch, but it was nice to see him again and, after the launch, personally congratulate him on the nearly perfect start to the mission. It was generous of such a busy, busy man to remember and greet us. There was Claire, an aeronautical engineering student from Melbourne, Australia, who came to see the launch, even though she hadn't been invited -- she just hung around the visitor areas at KSC in hopes of getting a glimpse of the rocket going up, and I'm pretty sure she got that view. (Alan had given me a mission pin, and I got another when I checked in to get my badge, so I gave her my extra. She was thrilled to get a neat "insider" souvenir.) Dr. Rick Shope, an educator from JPL who teaches teachers how to connect the space program to their students with kinesthetic learning tools, using interesting tools of his own: he's a mime who studied with Marcel Marceau.
I like telling people, "That's not rocket science -- and as a guy who worked at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory for 10 years, I should know." Yet this really was rocket science, and the people who do this sort of work for a living are fantastic to talk to. I enjoyed it for 10 years, and I'm incredibly privileged to still be able to do it now and then. My congratulations to the many men and women who had a part in hurtling some cameras and instruments to another uncharted spot in our sky.
(Disclosure: I briefly worked on the Pluto project with Rob Staehle at the end of my career there. I was even a co-author of a 1994 article in the journal Spaceflight. As I recall, I was the one who titled it: "Last But Not Least: the Trip to Pluto".)
July 2015: Arrival
After nine and a half years, New Horizons zoomed by Pluto. They couldn't stop and go into orbit: to get there in that amount of time, it needed to fly at 47,000 mph, and there was no way to pack in enough fuel to slow it down enough to stay. Still, New Horizons is expected to gather about 5,000 times as much data at Pluto as Mariner did at Mars.
And after that amount of time and three billion miles of flight, it arrived within one second of the time estimated at launch time, and came within 7,000 miles of Pluto's surface after traveling 3 billion miles.
Pluto is currently more than four light-hours from Earth (and moving away). That means its radio signal, which goes the speed of light (186,000 miles per second), takes more than four hours to arrive here, 3+ billion miles away. When the spacecraft takes a photo, the compressed image is about 2.5 mb in size. With the data rate available at that distance (about 125 bytes/second), it takes about 20 minutes for each photo to be transmitted.
That's why it will take 16 months to get back all the photos from the flyby.
That won't be the end of its mission, though: we know little about the Kuiper Belt just beyond Pluto, so New Horizons will be taking more photos, and using its other scientific instrument packages, to learn more about the thousands of bodies there as it speeds past.
For More on the Mission: visit the New Horizons Mission Site
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