To Pluto and beyond
We have the images of the close encounter with Pluto arriving exactly half a century after the first pictures from Mars, taken by Mariner 4. Half a century to pass close to (or touch) all the planets, plus an assortment of minor bodies: satellites, asteroids and comets. Homo sapiens Planetarius completed exploration “in situ” of the solar system in just over a generation. The editorial can be found in La Stampa by Giovanni Bignami.
The images of the meeting close with Pluto arrive exactly half a century after the first pictures from Mars, taken by Mariner 4 in July 1965. Half a century to pass close to (or touch) all the planets, plus an assortment of minor bodies: satellites, asteroids and comets. Homo sapiens Planetarius completed exploration “in situ” of the solar system in just over a generation.
It’s an incredible success, to which we pay too little attention. To get it, NASA and other space agencies have used a human capital comparable to that for the great pyramids of Egypt, on a time scale probably similar. But with one big difference: the end of construction of the pyramids (and for many centuries later), the technology was always the same: shovel, peak and wheel. Instead, pictures of New Horizons Pluto contain 5,000 times more data than in the pictures of the Mariner 4, but sent from Mars, whose orbit is one hundred times closer to Earth.
A huge leap forward, in half a century, directly fallen in advancing irreversible quality of our lives every day: if we do the picture with a smart phone, whether the ship and operate it without thinking, but even if your computer today beat the world chess champion, a lot comes from the technology and the challenges of space.
In addition, fortunately, we are increasingly ignorant about the universe around us. In our solar system, Pluto was the last big issue, a subject virtually unknown. Thanks to New Horizons, we already know that it is made of two-thirds of stone and a third of ice, which has a thin atmosphere of methane and nitrogen, where every so often fall snowflakes of methane (or other, we shall see).
Prior to better understand Pluto, Charon and the other four satellites (all with names from mythology funeral) will go a bit ‘of time. After ten years of travel, the beauty of the mission of New Horizons is concentrated in two hours and a half: the duration of the fly-by. Images and data will be taken in larger amounts than the probe can send in real time. Stored, the information it will come to the rhythms imposed by the power board and the distance. We will continue to receive new images, for us, for more than a year and a half.
And after the fly-by? The probe passes and cannot stop, would not have enough fuel to brake. Beyond Pluto is the large, unknown “third zone” of the solar system, which is after the internal area of the four rocky planets and the next of the four gases. What was the ninth planet, and that now is a nanoplanet, is on the threshold of great outer band, a kind of freezer full of billions of strange objects, stayed there, equal to themselves the birth of the solar system, about five billion years ago. New Horizons will be the fifth man-made object to leave the solar system, but first must pass through his mysterious and ancient suburbs and will also be the only one to be able to study.