krpalmer: (Default)
[personal profile] krpalmer
When Scientific American ran an article on New Horizons's voyage to Pluto written by Alan Stern, principal investigator of the project, I read it with interest. At the end of the article, there was a little notice a book on the same subject by him and another author would soon be published, and that got my attention too. The way things worked out, I was able to get a copy of Chasing New Horizons for my birthday. Sorting out as I started reading that the coauthor David Grinspoon included "astrobiologist" and "at the launch" among his qualifications even if he could seem to have much less of a presence in the narrative, I headed through an attention-grabbing prologue about the loss of contact with the probe days before the long-awaited encounter with Pluto and got back to Alan Stern's space-age youth. There, a 1970 article in National Geographic about what we did know then about the planets from the photographs blurred by long exposures through the atmosphere, and the preparations to do a lot more than fly a few probes past Venus and Mars, was described as formative for a lot of planetary scientists his age. (I recognised the article from having found that magazine in my grandmother's National Geographics, if over a decade later when it was interesting as a piece of history.) The article had mentioned plans for the "Grand Tour," gilt-edged probes intended from launch to last all the way down separate courses to Neptune and Pluto that had unfortunately made assumptions about just how much money would continue to be made available for NASA. (The book cast another light on those assumptions with the casual mention there had been plans for four Grand Tour probes, one pair per trajectory; after noticing what seemed a proofreading error or two later in the book I did some quick searching and did turn up a NASA document mentioning four probes.) The more budget-minded "Mariner Jupiter Saturn" program that turned into Voyagers 1 and 2 had been faced with "Titan; Uranus and Neptune; Pluto--pick two of three" and had gone for the quicker, surer things, but as Stern had started his scientific career, invigorated rather than dismissive at new observations of Pluto from Earth, he'd contemplated "finishing the job."

Other scientists joined in a "Pluto Underground," considering still more economical ways to send a probe. Competitions between plans did seem to mean a decade of things falling through, though, and even as the New Horizons mission took shape it had to bounce back from early cancellation and then build a probe on a tight schedule. (Along the way, there was a reference to decisions not quite being made in the imposing Coruscant surroundings of the Jedi High Council, which certainly got my attention; rather later on it's mentioned the theme song of "Star Trek: Enterprise" was played when switching New Horizons's systems back on for encounter, anyway.) The book got to the drama of launch in due time, but not that long afterwards those involved with the mission had to deal with what's easy to imagine as a bitter blow.

Stern and Grinspoon are brisk in describing the last-minute manoeuvrings at the International Astronomical Union that slammed a hard limit down on the number of "one hundred percent genuine planets" in the solar system and criticizing the definition tossed together by "astronomers" as one "planetary scientists" continue not to accept. There do continue to be quite a few mentions of "planet" in the book following, but as much as Stern had been one of the first people to suggest to me well before reading this book it wasn't just a matter of "hopeless sentiment" lingering in the face of "hard truths," I can keep wondering about "only looking for things that support what you already think," along with whether "questioning a vote" might somehow form unwitting alignments with "casting doubt on science in a way that just happens to form convenient alignments with established outside interests."

I'd at least wondered in the leadup to encounter (with Stern talking up various ways of raising public interest), considering the mid-sized moons of Saturn and Uranus, about just what would happen should Pluto amount to a heavily cratered, long-inert lump of ice. In the end, though, it really did seem harder to make brush-off declarations like "it's just too small--it can't possibly be interesting." The long descriptions of the preparations and voyage did have me wondering if there'd be space to do proper justice to the data set collected in onboard solid-state storage and radioed back to Earth at economical rates, but the book did have an interesting appendix. Stern talks up the possibility of visiting Pluto again with something considerable enough to go into orbit, although I did get to thinking it could have been said that, far from "tying off the loose end," this mission could well be seen as "opening new explorations of worlds innumerable," just as other solar systems aren't arranged like ours and the majority of mass in the universe isn't matter as we know it. It just might be an unwitting consequence of dismissing new small worlds in the effort to dismiss one with a bit of history, although I should still keep in mind "planning too many missions before they're paid for."

April 2019

S M T W T F S
  123 456
78 910 111213
1415 16171819 20
21222324252627
282930    

Most Popular Tags

Style Credit

Expand Cut Tags

No cut tags
Page generated Apr. 22nd, 2019 09:03 pm
Powered by Dreamwidth Studios