It’s been all over the news, the New Horizons flyby of Pluto. OK. First thing to take away. Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto in 1930. The best image obtainable at the time was a speck on a photographic plate (see arrow at left). Pluto is smaller than our moon and has an orbital period of 248 years, so we’ve only been able to plot its orbital trajectory for a little less than 85 years, and we’ve only been able to achieve an “aim something at it” level of accuracy for the past 15 years or so.
The mission to Pluto was launched in 2006, and it took the New Horizons craft 9-1/2 years to travel over 3 billion miles — that’s “billion” with a “B” — to Pluto. (Light from Pluto takes 4-1/2 hours to reach the Earth.) Unfortunately, although New Horizons was exactly where it was supposed to be when it arrived, it got there 72 seconds early. Well, dang. That’s a disappointing 99.9% accuracy.
The New Horizon spacecraft is the size of a grand piano with a large salad bowl atop it, only has two 32 GB hard drives on it, and has a one track mind — it cannot send and receive data at the same time, — so we had to white knuckle the flyby and wait until it was over to find out if the spacecraft survived it’s passage through the debris field between Pluto and its moon Charon. Because it can only transmit data at 1 to 2 Kbps (!), it’s going to take over 16 months for the New Horizons spacecraft to transmit all 64 GB of its data — that’s apparently all you got for $720 million in 2006. Just for comparison, my computer (bought in 2011) has a 500 GB hard drive (almost 8 times larger) and, according to the Geek Squad, I have a data transmission speed of 5.32 Mbps (1 Mb =1024 Kb), which is 5447.68 times faster.
Still, we’re getting a pretty good bang for our buck so far. This is Hubble’s best shot of Pluto at left compared to New Horizons’ first high resolution image at right.
Collaborating with the New Horizons team is Dr. Brian May. You may have heard of him. Before he got his Ph.D. in astrophysics, he played lead guitar in this rock band called “Queen” That’s him in 1974, second from right.
What I’m waiting for is for Discovery Channel or National Geographic Channel or one of those other “science” channels to do a show with him and Neil deGrasse Tyson talking about Pluto and getting their geek on.
Oh, and I forgot to mention. Clyde Tombaugh died in 1997 at the age of 90, and never got to see the close up images of that little pinpoint of light he found back in 1930, but on the New Horizons spacecraft is a small canister containing some of his cremains, and the legend: “Interned herein are remains of American Clyde W. Tombaugh, discoverer of Pluto and the solar system’s “third zone.” Adelle and Muron’s boy, Patricia’s husband, Annette and Alden’s father, astronomer, teacher, punster, and friend: Clyde W. Tombaugh (1906-1997).” Also on the spacecraft is a CD-ROM with the names of over 434,000 people who wanted to participate vicariously in this historic exploration. I’m sorry I didn’t know about that. I’d have wanted my name on that CD, too.
I was thinking just now: My mom will be 91 on her next birthday. She was born in 1924 during the age of radio. She was 2-1/2 years old when Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic. She was 6 years old when Pluto was discovered. She was 21 when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan. She was 23 when Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in a jet aircraft in 1947. She was in her middle 20’s when the television age began and she saw the Apollo 11 moon landing broadcast live from the moon. She was 53 the year the Apple II person computer came out, and she learned to use a desktop computer running the MS-DOS version of WordPerfect word processing software during her last years as a secretary for the law firm she worked for until she retired. (She’s still using the computer she got when she retired, BTW, which runs Word Perfect from MS-DOS and has a floppy disk drive!) She has seen the various space shuttle missions. She’s seen the International Space Station, and the three Mars Rovers, and now she’s seen Pluto. Unfortunately, she’s not likely to live long enough to see humans land on Mars. I hope I do.