By David McKalip, M.D.
Pluto. There once was a time when a close encounter with a previously un-surveyed planet in our solar system would capture the hearts and minds of a nation. Think Mariner, Voyager I and II and more. The breathtaking images of Mars, Venus, Saturn, Jupiter, Neptune, Uranus and all their moons and rings would dance in the visions of Americans for months and years. Dreams would ignite of interplanetary travel, mining of moons, human colonies and amazing discoveries for man of the natural, technical, social and spiritual variety. We have another unique moment upon us now in the history of mankind. The New Horizons spacecraft is about to have its closest encounter with Pluto and its moon Charon tomorrow!
Some may ask why a blog focused mainly on social and political issues that impact residents of Tampa Bay would be covering a mission to Pluto. While some in the community would like to put me on Pluto, I have been there already in my heart since I was a child! I am covering this for a variety of reasons: 1) It is a unique encounter in human history, 2) Sometimes we all could use some GOOD NEWS to give us hope for our future, 3) I think planets are really cool (!), 4) It points humanity toward an introspection as to our unique, God-given placement in this universe. I confess, my childhood bedroom wall was covered with posters of Jupiter, Saturn and their moons from the Voyager missions. Those images inspired me to dream big and that is the sort of inspiration mankind always needs.
The New Horizons space craft is scheduled to fly as close as 7,767 miles to Pluto tomorrow morning at about 7:50 a.m. That is after a 3 billion mile journey, sling-shotting around Jupiter after being launched in 2006 from our beautiful planet Earth. Thus the New Horizons spacecraft is set to fly closer to Pluto than the distance from the North Pole to the South Pole of Earth (7901 miles). One needs to place this in the context of the way so many describe mankind. A common pop culture exercise is to compare man to the entire Universe and conclude that we are a mere “speck” – of barely any significance – in the 13.8 billion year history of the known universe. Yet, here we are flying a spacecraft a micro-speck’s distance from a planet located 3 billion miles a way, a mere 6,000 years after beginning our recorded history with an estimated 200,000 years on the planet! So a species only in existence for a mere 0.0014% (1/1000th of 1 percent) of the history of the known universe is, once again, threading the needle with a flyby of a spacecraft billions of miles away. Way to go humanity!
The encounter tomorrow will give us close up views of Pluto and its moon Charon, which is about half its size (mission website). The two bodies orbit a central point, opposite each other in a celestial dance. They are joined by three other recently discovered moons: Nix, Styx, Hydra and Kerberos. The flyby will utilize the advanced instrumentation on New Horizons known as LORRI, RALPH, ALICE, and REX, PEP S SI, SWAP and SDC. These instruments measure various aspects of the planet (known as an “Icy Dwarf”) including visual, infrared, ultraviolet and other data. This data will be used to evaluate the atmosphere, surface, magnetic fields and more. This will help create a picture for mankind of our furthest planet in the system.
The encounter with Pluto reminds us of when men, women and all mankind are at our best. We are at our best when we are always reaching beyond ourselves. Always risking more to grow. Mankind is best when we dream, when we expand. These early explorations (since the 1960’s) will hopefully serve as the stepping stones to mankind’s colonization of our solar system and a future venture to the stars. Hopefully missions like these will serve to remind us that we should reject calls to have mankind return to the “primitive”. So many say we should be more “simple” and be wary of the technological advances we make. They say we should have smaller populations and limit the use of our minds, our abilities, our responsible use of resources and our pioneering spirit. I say poppycock! Here is my wish for mankind: Explore! Grow! Innovate! Develop! Pioneer! Let’s reach our full potential in the stars!