Thursday, March 09, 2006

To Pluto and Beyond

I've always been interested in space stuff. I grew up with the Gemini and Apollo missions. I always wanted to be an astronaut, but I knew I probably wouldn't be able to be one. So I just decided to devote my life to learning everything I could about space.

I remember being kinda disappointed when we finally landed on the moon. We had studied the moon from afar for years — peering at it through telescopes and wondering what it was really like. But when we got there, the astronauts weren't astronauts any more — they were geologists. Sheesh, that's no fun. It's a whole lot more fun to study another planet vicariously through a telescope or by an orbiter or lander. But to actually scoop up rocks and look at them under a microscope — gee, you could do that on Earth!

I got really excited a few months ago when I first learned about the New Horizons spacecraft. It's going to be the first spacecraft to actually visit Pluto and study it up close. Pluto is the last planet (of the original nine) that we haven't explored at all. And now they are discovering a whole bunch of cold, icy, rocky masses beyond the orbit of Pluto — some of which are planets in their own right.

I watched the liftoff on streaming video on nasa-tv while I was sitting at my desk at work. The Internet is a wonderful thing! It was just like the Apollo days. I felt like I was 13 years old again. I kept it running in a corner of my screen while I was doing my other work.

High surface winds at the launch site scrubbed the mission just two and a half minutes before it was to take off. But they were able to launch it successfully the next day. It was the most exciting part of my day. Everything else is pretty boring when compared to exploring an alien word thirty billion miles away.

The craft is well on its way to Pluto now, calmly coasting toward a rendezvous with Jupiter next year for a gravity assist. Then it's almost another decade of coasting until it reaches its target.

But who's in a hurry? Pluto has been there for a few million years. And it's waited for half a century of space travel. It can wait a decade or so more before it shows its face closeup for the first time.

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