Friday, July 17, 2015

Pluto - at Childhood's End

I've been a bit slow to get around to posting about the New Horizons mission which successfully missed Pluto this week.  Just kidding.  As The Hitchhiker's Guide says, "Space is big".  It would be impossible to get that close to Pluto - or pretty much anything out there - without really masterful planning and execution.  Hats off to the Applied Physics Lab at Johns Hopkins and NASA.  I recall watching the liftoff of New Horizons and wondering what my life would be like when it got there. I never envisioned blogging, that's for sure!

In a way, this mission signifies childhood's end.  It completes mankind's initial exploration of the Solar System; our first visits to check out all of our neighborhood.  We've sent probes to every planet; we've landed on Mars and Venus, on comets, and asteroids, and this mission means we've visited a Kuiper belt object, as most classify the dwarf planet Pluto.  Beyond the Kuiper belt is interstellar space.  (Since New Horizons was launched January 19, 2006 and the decision to call it a dwarf planet came in August of 2006, Pluto was technically a "full up" planet when the mission started.) 

If childhood is over, then what?  More commercial operations, for sure.  I'm a big believer in unmanned missions like this.  First, we always get far more data per dollar on unmanned missions.  While there is a place for men in space, a mission like this is impossible with any manned space technology known or coming soon.  This is a disposable vehicle mission for sure: the probe took 9 1/2 years to get to Pluto and will continue along its ballistic path until it either hits something, or the universe dies around it.  Any mission with a crew would have to plan how to return to Earth, take fuel, food, and everything else needed.  A 9 1/2 year flyby mission would become a 20 or 25 year mission.  Add to that it's the kind or raw science mission with unknowable, or remote pay off possibilities that a benefactor is better at than a business.   Private space businesses really would do better to go capture one of the platinum asteroids to mine.  The payoff is bigger, and easier to use to obtain venture capital than a research mission.  It's easier to figure costs vs. payback with millions of tons of platinum.  They just have to not crash the market price for the metal - easier said than done when everyone knows you're sitting on a real mother lode!

As for government vs. private sector: if I had Bill Gates or even Donald Trump level money, I'd pay for a mission like this, for sure.  But it doesn't have to be a billionaire; Harvard's endowment is so large they could pay for this and never miss it: the whole mission so far hasn't cost $1 billion and they have about $50 B.  There's room for a medieval-style patron to fund missions like this. 
Scott Stantis captures the dichotomy that is the population.  To some people, it's an experience filled with wonder and awe.  To others, it's just another ball of ice.  To others still, I'm sure there will be a ton of wackos calling it all lies and coverups by NASA.  Every piece of orbital debris that shows up in frame near the Space Station is an alien vehicle, every rock on Mars is a fossil animal or evidence of other aliens.  Will they know what to attribute ice mountains on Pluto to? 


  1. The state of education in this country is appalling...

    But it isn't just that.

    The US pretty much decided it didn't want to be in the science business anymore when I was in college and the Large Hadron Collider was in initial design.

    The State of Texas offered to dig the whole. (Not an insignificant undertaking), but the US decided it didn't care about science, and it ended up on Franco-Swiss border.

    That was about the time I changed my major from physics to mathematics. And shortly before I gave up on the idea of getting a PhD.

    It was also about that time the .gov decided that all research into cryptography was a national security issue. So many people dropped out of cryptography it was almost funny. (In a world of publish-or-perish, if you can't publish because of the .gov...)

    The research going on today is either funded by private concerns (IBM and Intel researching the next gen of chips or Big Pharma working on drugs) or it is of the Social Justice Warrior variety. Though I suppose we are paying for a certain amount of climate insanity.

  2. How much would it cost to raise millions of tons of steel into Earth orbit to build large spacecraft to go exploring with? Even if you had a beanstalk?

    The Platinum is worth more orbiting the Earth as a building material than on Earth's surface.

  3. Wheelgun - oh, we pay for tons of government research, but it all seems to be based on some sort of agenda. We get lectured on not eating too much fat based on research that always turns out to be crap, or not eating too much salt also based on research that always turns out to be crap or global warming based on computer models that always turn out to be crap... you get the picture. To be fair, I'm sure there are some who really care and are really trying to advance science, but when a political organization funds research it seems their goals are always political. Who would have guessed?

    I remember the big collider in Texas. It was The Superconducting Super Collider at the time; it didn't become the LHC until it moved over to the EU. Not that the name matters. It was an early move in the US' default decisions not to be involved in anything important any more. One party doesn't want to do research unless it has to do with weaponry and the other doesn't want to do research unless it involves the SJW crap you refer to.