We’re on the verge of history. In fact, history probably came and went while you read that sentence. That seems to happen quite a bit these days, doesn’t it? This occasion is nine years of space travel, decades of work and planning, and almost a century of dreaming all come to fruition.
The New Horizons space probe just flew by Pluto, formerly the ninth planet in the solar system, now considered a dwarf planet and Kuiper Belt object. Discovered in 1930, it’s been a near total mystery up until the last few years.
For those who have lived longer lives than I, space exploring probes are actually a relatively new technology, cosmically speaking. One of the most famous probes, Voyager 2 was launched in August 1977. That’s less than twelve years before I was born. It was the first, and so far only, spacecraft to explore the planets beyond Saturn, reaching Uranus in January 1986, and then skipping onto Neptune, which it encountered in August of 1989, twelve years after launching. For those keeping track, we’re now within my lifetime.
My fascination with the universe began early, but I don’t know when, exactly. One of my earliest memories is stopping by a bookstore somewhere near or within the city of Buffalo and picking up this book:
Published in 1993, it contained fresh photos from the Voyager 2 mission to the outer planets among easy to understand facts and information on the once cutting edge of astronomical science. My growing brain absorbed it all like a black hole.
Simple text, pretty pictures, and scientific facts. Except, we’re leaving something out. Something beyond Neptune. My Very Educated Mother Just Said… Uh-Oh No Pluto!
Fun fact, between 1979 and 1999, Pluto’s orbit brought it closer to the Sun than Neptune. Relative positions aside, this meant that Voyager 2 was now headed into the Kuiper Belt and interstellar space without having visited the (formerly) last planet in the system. When this book was published more than half of the lifetime of that mission ago, there was very little known about Pluto. From Earth based observatories and the Hubble Space Telescope, we could estimate its size, mass, orbital period, tilt, temperature, orbit and a smattering of data on its satellite Charon: almost all figures were slightly off, including the number of moons it had. Not bad from more than 3.5 billion miles away, yet wholly lacking compared to every other major body in the solar system.
We barely even had a picture of it. On Wikipedia, even up until a few months ago, representing this celestial body in the info box was a crudely stitched surface map created from what could have been about 64 pixels blended together, seen above. Before that, just a picture of what could have been a binary dwarf star, seen here.
I grew up with detailed knowledge on every planet in the solar system, except this one. In my entire lifetime, no spacecraft had ever approached Pluto. It’s been almost 26 years since we came across Neptune. Finally, today, New Horizons zipped by the ninth planet, giving us the best look we’ve ever had at it. I’ve watched Pluto’s Wikipedia entry expand rapidly over the past months. Where once we were literally in the dark, now a vast store of information has been unlocked, with much more coming down the four light-hour long pipeline.
It’s like living an episode of Star Trek. We’re actually discovering a brave new world in real-time!