Way back in 1999 I read a book Pluto and Charon – Ice Worlds on the Ragged Edge of the Solar System by Alan Stern & Jacqueline Mitton. I learned that plutophiles share a remarkable dedication. For example, when a rare occultation of a star by Pluto was visible only in Israel, “[a]s luck would have it, the great Israeli-Jordanian airwar was just then taking place overhead… Almost unbelievably, [the astronomers] managed to observe the event despite the circumstances overhead…[producing] the only astronomical observation ever made through a sky filled with dog-fighting”. Their observations led to the discovery that Pluto has an atmosphere.
When Eris was discovered in 2005, it became clear Pluto wasn’t a unique oddity but a member of a class of objects – the largest “plutino” in the Kuiper belt, but smaller than Eris in the scattered trans-Neptune disk. Pluto was famously downgraded to dwarf planet status by the International Astronomical Union in 2006 and many people were furious.
The last chapter of Stern and Mitton’s book described the slow progress towards launching a mission to Pluto. The authors noted “it will take NASA more years to get the Pluto mission out of the Washington, D. C. beltway, than Pluto Express would need to cross the whole solar system!” But they were optimistic a mission would be launched and ended with “guard your secrets while you can, Pluto! We are coming.”
They were wrong about one thing – it only took seven more years to launch the spacecraft New Horizons on January 19, 2006; while it’s taken nine years for the craft to reach Pluto. Alan Stern leads its team. Its systems have been activated and the exploration of Pluto and its many moons begins January 15, 2015.
Why spend millions of dollars to learn about a few rocky ice-balls at the edge of our solar system when there are so many problems here on Earth? That question implies money is all we need to solve our earthly dilemmas, but politics, prejudice, and pig-headedness are bigger impediments. If we wait until we solve all of today’s problems, we’ll never get to tomorrow. As Bill Dunford said, why waste time trying to figure out agriculture? We have so much work to do hunting and gathering. Why spend effort on boats? We have so many issues here on the land. Why fiddle with computers? There’s so much calculating to be done with these pencils.
Why explore space? To find out why. Good luck, New Horizons.