Saturday, August 28, 2010

Half-Way to Nowhere

There are many situations where patience is a virtue. I remember when the Olympics were awarded to Sydney. It seemed so far away in time - seven years of waiting for two weeks of action.

However, in those seven years there was frantic activity and promotion, building to a crescendo of two weeks in September 2000 which most people in this country look back on fondly. No doubt those directly involved in the organization and staging also feel a great sense of pride and achievement.

On January 19, 2006, another great waiting game began. Nine years of waiting for eight weeks of frantic activity. Unfortunately this great endeavour is not as well publicized and looking in from the outside there appear to be long periods of not much going on. And the facts are that so many things could have, and still could, go wrong and render all the waiting futile.

I am talking about the New Horizons Mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt. The New Horizons probe is about half way to Pluto, where for about four weeks either side of closest approach, it will be able to produce images superior to the best Hubble images of Pluto.

In 1989 when I was seventeen, the ABC presented a program where we watched and waited for the first images from the closest approach of Voyager 2 to Neptune. We saw the beautiful blue of the atmosphere and the Great Dark Spot. I am hoping that something like this will happen again in 2015, although sadly I fear it will be relegated to the Internet, and people will complain that the whole thing was anti-climactic. This is because in contrast with the spectacular gas and ice giants, Pluto may not offer up the spectacle that will entrance the general public. It is scientifically interesting and important, but I can foresee as the encounter approaches the media devolving into the argument about Pluto's planetary status and if the images aren't spectacular enough more whining about the waste of money on NASA and space exploration.

Personally, I don't care about any of that. I don't care if the media doesn't appreciate the science or the engineering or the sense of achievement of those involved in the mission (OK, that is a lie - I do care, but I am pessimistic). I want these next five years to go by uneventfully for the team operating New Horizons, and for eight weeks in 2015, I want to share in the experience of watching images that have taken hours to arrive from billions of miles away, marvel in the engineering achievement, and await the scientific insights into the farthest solar system body (planet, minor planet or whatever) yet visited.

2 comments:

  1. Just turned on commenting. Seeing if it will work. :)

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  2. Yep, it works...

    You're unfortunately correct about the media and the masses. Most don't find this in the least bit amazing that we have the technology and the engineering know-how to get out to Pluto and take photos. They do however, find it incredible that scientists can't predict to the exact moment a volcano will erupt or that doctors still sometimes have to 'practice' medicine because there are still mysteries with regards to health. Most people are dumb.

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