New Horizons – A Passage to Pluto

Image by NASA

Image by NASA

At 11:50 GMT (12:50 BST) today, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft should have completed its primary mission of flying past the dwarf planet Pluto.  We won’t know for certain yet if the probe survived, and at a velocity of 14km per second, even a tiny fragment of rogue space debris could be monumentally destructive.

In just a few hours’ time, the probe is due to call Earth via a giant dish in Madrid, Spain.  Only then will the astronomical community be (hopefully) able to breathe a collective sigh of relief. Meanwhile, let’s forget for just a moment that success will likely only be measured by the further reams of data that scientists hope to receive about Pluto and its celestial companions Charon,Styx, Nix, Kerberos and Hydra.

If we consider the complexity of this task when it first began, and the ridiculously small margin for error that this little probe’s journey could afford, it’s a remarkable achievement to have made it this far at all. After an epic odyssey of over 9 years and 3 billion miles, New Horizons had to aim for a target of space just 100km by 150km in size and to pinpoint its arrival to within 100 seconds of a specified time – and all this powered by no more than the equivalent of a couple of light bulbs.

Failure would have resulted in the spacecraft’s instruments pointing at the wrong place at the wrong time – and a huge disappointment to the science world and space enthusiasts.  Regardless of the outcome of the last few hours of the mission, enough data has already been received to teach us so much more about the outer edge of our solar system – and we may not yet fully realise the future benefits that this knowledge could provide.

So, in honour of this most intrepid of long distance travellers, I offer an adaptation of an old adage:

‘life is a journey, not just a destination’

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