New Horizons And The Birth of STEMpunk
Suggested listening for today's post: "Number Nine" by The Diatomics Monday's post by the delightful Don Riefler has me thinking a lot about the various current space missions being conducted by NASA and other space agencies. In particular I was thinking about the New Horizons mission to Pluto and, with a shock, I realized I had no idea what was going to happen to that brave little craft after it had reached our most distant former planet.
A little refresher for those not as obsessive about humanity's push into the aether as I am: New Horizons left Earth on January 19th, 2006 and is scheduled to reach Pluto in July of 2015. That's some 3 BILLION miles at a speed of almost ten miles per second. It's mission is the first close up study of Pluto as it has been left out of the science party by other space craft headed out of our solar system.
If you'll recall, Don spoke in his last video about the path taken by the Rosetta craft and how it used the gravitational attraction of several planets to increase its speed and change its path on its trip to rendezvous with its target comet. I took for granted that the New Horizons craft would use the same general idea of gravity transfer once it reached Pluto.
D'oh! It took only a moment to find this enlightening article about the mission creep of New Horizons. As it turns out, Pluto is much too small to help slow New Horizons and the only other gravity transfer option, using the sun, would take 200 years to be effective. Even firing its thrusters is out as New Horizons does not hold anywhere near enough fuel to use for braking.
So what's the solution? Well, apparently New Horizons is not going to stop at all. It will fly as close as 6,000 miles from Pluto and then continue out to explore some objects in the Kuiper belt. Objects like Pluto. Objects that may hold important insights to how planetesimals, and the larger planets, form.
This is what makes me so excited about space exploration. Many years and billions of miles away, these mighty robots fly through endless night on a mission of discovery that would take untold generations to accomplish if done in person. There will be surprises as information we might not have even been looking for presents itself to our examination. Less than a year from now our personal horizon will include Pluto, not just as the former ninth planet and undistinguished space-rock, but as a dynamic object that we've seen and measured. Already the mission has gathered interesting and unexpected information and I heartily suggest that everyone takes some time to look at NASA's Solar System exploration page.
Last but not least, that song referenced at the top of the post is a demo from a new project being launched in the very near future. It's a new genre called STEMpunk and it combines my favorite parts of science with my favorite parts of music. Scientifically accurate, loud, and dirty. Kind of like me. Stay tuned for the official album release.