We Visited Pluto And All I Got Was This Lousy Shirt

It will produce data of interest to a very few with nearly zero chance of changing life on Earth. We’re long past the Velcro, transistor, Tang stage of space exploration.


I’m so conflicted about our flight to Pluto. New Horizons is a success. It’s cool!

What is its purpose?

It will produce first time data of very limited interest with nearly zero chance of changing life on Earth. We’re long past the Velcro, transistor, Tang stage of space exploration. The technology of sending missions is mature.

new horizonsI’ll dismiss my concerns for a while because this mission is amazing in its complexity. With the exception of one last minute glitch it’s been a perfect ride.

First–space is big!

Bigger than big.

However big you think it is, it’s bigger. The numbers are beyond what any of us can reasonably comprehend.

It took the New Horizons, the world’s fastest satellite, 9.5 years to reach 4.5 light hours distant. That means it takes light or radio waves 4.5 hours to travel from New Horizons to Earth. Our nearest star (beyond the Sun) is 3.2 light years away, thousand and thousand of times more distant. For all practical purposes, unreachable.

P_LORRI_FULLFRAME_COLORPluto is an interesting planet (or dwarf planet) because it’s where it doesn’t belong. The innermost planets of our solar system are solid. The outer planets are weird gas giants. Pluto’s out there, but solid like an inner planet,

Pluto’s orbit is also out of the plane of the other planets. It even crosses inside the orbit of Neptune.

What I enjoy most about Pluto is its moons. Styx, Nix, Kerberos, Hydra and Charon. Charon doesn’t orbit Pluto as much as they orbit each other. The others moons, tiny and not all round, wobble, spin and rapidly change direction while in orbit. It’s the space version of the Scrambler type ride you’d see at a fair.

New Horizons has a ten watt transmitter. At this distance and with that power the only way to communicate is to send data very slowly. It will take 16 months for New Horizons to recap its past day and a half, returning a ton of scientific data to Earth.

Now it’s on to the Kuiper Belt. What an accomplishment. I wish it was worthwhile.

3 thoughts on “We Visited Pluto And All I Got Was This Lousy Shirt”

  1. I agree—it is an interesting mission, but what do we gain from it. A lot of happy people at Mission Central–this mission has been, for the most part–their life’s work. I like you description of the moons’ motion—I can picture that. What I want to know is how does one decide what is a moon—especially when it looks like a good sized Baking Potato! Maybe I will try and catch the Litchfield/Torrington/Wbry astronomy club meeting up at White Memorial Park, tonight. They will be talking about Pluto. Should also be a fair night for star gazing.

  2. This is such an infuriating argument. “It’s cool, but what do we gain from it?” We gain KNOWLEDGE. Just the first not-quite-handful of images that have come back have already set the entire geophysics field on its ear. This is powerful, exciting stuff.

    As a sentient species, one of our purposes in life is to learn about the world (Universe) around us. What’s the point of having intelligence if you’re not going to use it?

    Each one of these images is inspiring kids all over the world to study math and science. They may not go into astronomy, but they may go into fields that have a direct impact on us here back home. Just because you can’t point back to a concrete thing like Velcro that’s going to affect your life right this second, that certainly does not mean this mission isn’t going to have positive effects for humanity in the not-so-distant future.

    (Sorry, but the “space isn’t worth our time” thing has been a hot-button issue for me my entire life. Where did our imagination go??)

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