Friday, July 31, 2015

Postscripts To A Pluto Flyby

I have always been fascinated with space. 

My earliest memory of the heavens was UFO-spotting with my father at the back of our house. Strange as it sounds, but my introduction to Astronomy came in the form of pseudo-science. And while I don't recall finding anything bizarre in the sky, except for a stationary orange object, which I insisted to be a cosmic body, nothing groundbreaking happened to us that night.

Or so it seems.

Then came the Master of Orion. That computer strategy game that lets you run an entire world and send ships to colonize other stars. Of course, there are rivals, artificial intelligence, whose goal is to prevent human players like me from dominating the game. I was in Junior high school then, whose time coincided with my growing addiction to the TV series, Babylon 5. Bring the two together, and the space geek in me finally achieved sentience.

I remember taking my strategy game very seriously - so much - that I was hard-pressed to pick names of real celestial objects already discovered by astronomers. Vega, Lalande, Fomalhaut, just to name a few. I even made sure to name my newly acquired worlds in the order of the nearest star systems to the sun. As to how I got those names and their distance from the Solar system accurate, a pocket-sized encyclopedia takes the credit. It was one of those trinkets I bought with my own school allowance, and one, whose contents still illuminate me to this day.

Among the prominent chapters of the pocket-sized encyclopedia were the illustrated pages of the planets in our Solar System. They were recent photos, taken by the Voyager probes as they glide past those worlds. There was Jupiter, and her Jovian satellites; Saturn and her majestic rings, and then there was Neptune, which, according to the little book appears to have internal sources of heat. That tidbit of knowledge thrilled me, and so I turned the pages, only to get disappointed, when I found how scant the information was about the next featured planet: Pluto.

Pluto was the final frontier, and until last summer, very little was known about the dwarf planet. In the pocket-sized encyclopedia, only a silhouetted dot, together with her blurry satellite, Charon were shown. It was taken by the recently launched Hubble Space Telescope in place of high resolution pictures of other worlds. 

At that time, nobody thought humanity would embark on a journey to study the planet up-close. Not in our lifetime. After all, it takes 6 hours for sunlight to reach its surface. The object was at the fringes of the Solar System, and while the technology is available to send a probe to Pluto, human will can't. It was only after a series of project scrapping, followed by collective outcry that NASA finally decided to fund the project and launch the New Horizon spacecraft in 2006.


The New Horizons probe sailed the depths of the solar system, unnoticed, while the matters of the earth shifted from petty wars to climate change. While the quest to study the heavens, with Curiousity taking selfies on Mars and Dawn snapping pictures of Ceres, went on, with much fanfare, the New Horizons flyby was gearing up to become the most talked about human accomplishment so far. And on July of this year, almost a decade since the spacecraft left the Earth, humanity had its first encounter with Pluto.  

The exploration of the Solar System is at long last, complete.

The collective jubilation was apparent on both the virtual and real life conversations. Memes were created, with focus on the heart-shaped feature prominent on the surface of Pluto. There were also those who lament, that after all these years, what we can afford to send was a probe merely capable of passing a distant planet. And while the issue of the trans-Neptunian object being downgraded to a dwarf world was once more being raised, this breakthrough suddenly became yesterday's news: the terrestrial affairs (and all its domestic concerns) once more became the daily struggles of humankind.

It is as if, sightings of another world is but a stuff of dreams.


I would like to think that our flyby to Pluto, no matter how ephemeral, will stir the imagination of children, like it did, when our generation had its first glimpse of the worlds beyond Mars. At a time when talk about scaling down space exploration is being thought out of political accommodation, and when our yearning to go places wanes as we grow more at ease with our lives spent on the internet, there is a tinge of anxiety knowing we might cease searching and just stagnate here, until we all die out.

But I still believe there remains to be accomplished and our aspiration as a species since leaving our cradle in Africa to inhabit the planet still needs to be fulfilled. We may have mapped the solar system, and have begun looking at the stars for worlds similar to ours, but until we set foot on another world, and make it our new home, the dreamers among us will still look at the sky at night, and sigh with vexed yearning at how long before the heavens are within reach.

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