It may have passed you by, this one, but on Tuesday a manmade object made a fly-by on a rather distant bit of the universe. New Horizons made a trip past Pluto. That’s a long way to go to take a few holiday snaps. About 4.8 billion km, or 3 billion miles to be precise.
The programme nearly got shelved, but way back in the past the US Postal Service issued a stamp with an image of Pluto on it, with the line ‘Not yet explored.’ It may be an apocryphal tale, but this apparently was the inspiration for scientists to seek the money and resources to launch this epic mission.
And let’s face it, this was an epic. Back in January 2006, New Horizons left Earth orbit at over 36,000 mph, making it the fastest spacecraft ever, and that’s no mean feat in itself. Then it set off on its lonely voyage. Flew past Jupiter, had a shufti at Saturn, popped round to Uranus’s gaff, and on past Neptune. At this point, one of the mission controllers pointed out, it all got a bit dull, because it would take 4½ years for anything to happen. Anyway, on Tuesday New Horizons woke up and phoned home.
Then it went quiet again, but that’s fine, since it was planned. Because it was designed pretty much on a shoestring budget, it can’t multitask, so it either gathers data or it communicates. It can’t do both.
Talking of budget, all the usual nitwits have been whining on about the cost. I think a relatively modest $700M is a bit of a bargain to go that distance. At just over 2 cents a mile, it’s cheaper than running a family car. It would only buy not quite three F35 warplanes, and most people don’t bat an eyelid at the cost of an aeroplane so badly flawed in its design it may never see combat. At least New Horizons works.
Just so you can get an idea of how far away this little object is, and it is pretty tiny at the size of a golf buggy, it takes the radio signals 4½ hours to get back here, so think about that next time your broadband has a go-slow. It takes a mere nine minutes for light from the Sun to get here. Also bear in mind that the same mission controller who said it was a bit dull past Neptune (dull being a bit relative here) has seen his children grow up, go to college, and get married since the mission started. That’s a long time.
Just to cheer you up, it’s snowing on Pluto.