Saturday, December 5, 2020

New Horizons spacecraft talks to Earth from Pluto


NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft took 9½ years to make its 3.26 billion-mile journey to Pluto, but the images of a huge heart-shaped plain without craters and ice mountains with an elevation of 11,000 feet on the planet and those of a 4 mile-deep canyon on the largest of its five moons will be the last best images of another planet we’ll be seeing for a long, long time. And that should be enough to inspire future generations to reach for great heights and pursue studies that don’t have an immediate payoff but will continue to pay off years down the road.

Video of some of the first pics sent back. The plain suggests tectonic activity (NASA)

The spacecraft did a fly-by of the solar system’s largest dwarf planet in the morning of July 14, coming within 7,800 miles of the surface, but the pictures weren’t received back on Earth until later in the evening. As predicted, though, at 8:52:37 PM, Eastern Daylight Time, Mission Control at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., received the first transmission from New Horizons, which had been put into a data-acquisition mode during the fly-by and couldn’t transmit in that mode.

“We are in lock with carrier,” the New York Times quoted Alice Bowman, the missions operations manager, as saying. “Stand by for telemetry.”

And then, the pictures started coming. It will take about 16 months to get them all, mainly because the modem on board the spacecraft transmits at about 1,000 bits per second, and each pixel in the 1,024 × 1,024 images has 12 bits. That is, even if signals from New Horizons were the only thing NASA was listening to, it would still take about 20 minutes to download a single picture from the spacecraft.

But when we do get them, if the initial photos are any indication of what’s to come, they’ll be worth the wait.

So, here’s the question for our government: We can spend this much money on NASA missions like this that inspire generations of Americans, or we can spend that same amount on three or four fighter jets, which will allow us to shoot down other fighter jets flown by other humans here on Earth. How should we spend the money?

The dedication of NASA’s team, the ingenuity of American scientists and engineers, the human spirit of the taxpayers who fund them—all of these contribute to the undisputed fact that the US put the first probe into space on its way to Mars in the 1960s and has since flown to every planet in our solar system to take pictures of these strange worlds. We didn’t get good pics of the surface on Venus because of the thick clouds on that planet, but we now have decent photographs of the landscape on all the other planets.

We join the voices of many other Americans in expressing great pride in our nationality and the perseverance of scientists and engineers in the face of budget cuts and other setbacks. A job well done, indeed!

The power is with us, fellow Americans, to explore, to discover, to enlighten, and to be in awe of the wonders of the universe. That is the essence of humanity: to wonder, to inquire, to seek answers using any means available, and to cherish what we find, whether in this world or in others.

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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