Wednesday, July 15, 2015

New Horizons Arrives At Pluto - Showing Again Why Gov't Is Superior To Commercial Space Enterprises

View Of Pluto from the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager  Aboard New Horizons spacecraft then half way to its minimum distance of 7700 miles.

The spectacular views of the most distant planet, Pluto, coming in from the New Horizons spacecraft have been are more than enough to stir wonder and awe.  What used to be visible in our telescopes only as a fuzzy disk or blob is now seen to have distinct features, with different coloration. This successful 9 1/2 year long, 3 billion mile voyage ( to many of us),  has also revealed the enormous advantage that government -enabled missions have over commercial space endeavors.

By "government -enabled" I mean that a government agency, NASA, coordinated and supported all the detailed technical and engineering inputs - while ensuring that the disparate institutional contributors (e.g. Southwest Research Inst.) all delivered this end point, as if from a single "conductor" directing a symphony. I argue that no commercial enterprise such as exists now - including Space-X -  could have done the same, and probably couldn't even in the near future. They simply don't command the resources.

Officially, NASA's New Horizons whizzed past the planet Pluto about 5:49 a.m. Tuesday, traveling at more than 30,000 miles per hour. The reason the close-up, detailed photos weren't available at the time is because of the fact that light only travels at 300,000 km/sec so it would take over 4 hours to transmit each photo (at closest pass) back to Earth. The electronic signals which embody the images then must be deconvolved,  processed - which takes time.

The spacecraft last communicated with mission control at 9:17 p.m. Monday night. The craft, which has now gone radio silent, is using its energy for science — pointing its instruments at Pluto and its moon Charon to collect data on its one-time trip. Mission Control, based at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Science Lab, didn't hear from New Horizons again until about 6:50 p.m. Tuesday, when a signal sent from the spacecraft to Earth about four hours earlier reached  mission control.

New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern said Monday that dynamic  models indicate a low probability that New Horizons will suffer damage on its journey through Pluto's system.

"I don't think that we're going to lose the spacecraft," Stern said. "We've been furiously transmitting data to the ground over the last few days ... but it would be gilding the lily a little bit if I didn't tell you 99 percent of the data is still on the spacecraft."

Although Stern remains hopeful, he said the science team has already downlinked "fail-safe data sets" from each area of the spacecraft's study as a contingency plan. The spacecraft will collect about 100 times more data on close approach to the planet than it can send home before the entire fly-by is over, according to NASA.

About 1 percent of the data collected during the approach and fly-by will be immediately sent back to Earth. This will include some images that the New Horizons team will share with the public as soon as they are processed.

Most of the data will be stored on board and downlinked to Earth beginning in September, providing scientists what Stern calls a "16-month data waterfall," bringing scientists new and exciting discoveries over the next year.

In what is possibly the most fascinating aspect of the 9½ -year-long wait, the data the team receives tomorrow will make Tuesday's data obsolete, said Southwest Research Institute's John Spencer, who heads up the mission's geology and geophysics areas.

"Tomorrow's pictures will be nearly 10 times better than today's," Spencer said. "We also get our first decent views of the small moons, Nix and Hydra, which up to now have been little more than just points of light ... There's stuff coming thick and fast from now on."

So we need to be patient and hold strain as the ever more highly resolved imagery comes in.

In the meantime, it's a good opportunity to revisit Pluto's identity: Is it a dwarf planet or a bona fide proper planet? I take the latter position as does Stern, who three years ago noted that the new "dwarf" planet definition was “sadly flawed, particularly due to the vagueness of the third condition”, e.g. clearing the neighborhood around its orbit – which might also disqualify Earth!)

He added: “A lot of people are going to ignore the (new) definition because it doesn’t make sense.” (Source: Eos, Vol. 87, 29 August, 2012,  p. 350)

Let us recall here that the Pluto re-definition as a "dwarf planet" was entirely the result of a subjective vote taken at a meeting of the International Astronomical Union (IAU).  So while one might sympathize with author Mike Brown ( 'How I Killed Pluto and Why It had It Coming') over the "hate mail from school children" at his role in Pluto's demise, the fact is it was likely spurred as much by the irrational basis.

Meanwhile, another proper planet antagonist, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, has argued in an interview this evening "how can Pluto be a regular  planet when it crosses the orbit of Neptune's for 20 years" - which is one of the most inane excuses for degrading its status I ever heard.

 The tragedy of the 2006 Pluto vote is that it has not only set back planetary astronomy – showing the preponderance of ego and pseudo-science over genuine scientific inquiry – but also eroded public confidence in science, extrapolated to areas like anthropogenic global warming.

But perhaps after this important flyby, and seeing Pluto's moon system up close as well - all that will change.

Stay tuned!

A comparative view of Pluto, Earth and Pluto's moon Charon is shown below:
Earth comparison with Pluto and Charon

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