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There’s plenty of action on Pluto

In the not-too-far cosmic distance…

We had a lot of luck on Venus

We always had a ball on Mars

We danced around with borealis

We’re space truckin’ round the stars.

   —Deep Purple, “Space Truckin'”

Why do we see so much hoopla in the media about Pluto? Well there are a great many people who take science seriously. It’s a very good turn for anyone as weary as I, of the distorted stream of tragedies in the news. Could exploration again become prominent in the lives of people?

NASA has accomplished a long term project in the New Horizons mission that no one could have be certain about. The technology of space travel has passed a milestone of success which to many people’s minds proves that exploration is feasible and worthwhile. Upcoming missions will continue to thrill the millions who pay attention.

Pluto is so far away that the New Horizons spacecraft has taken nine and a half years to arrive. The time lag for radio signals from the New Horizons spacecraft is over four hours. After all, Pluto is nearly 40 times farther out from the Sun than Earth is.

My favorite source for solar system news is the Planetary Society website You don’t need to be a member to keep up with all the news that the Planetary Society presents. However, if you’d like to become one, the $37 membership fee goes for supporting public space science and exploration and you can receive the Planetary Society magazine.

The Kuiper Belt region where Pluto resides is home also to thousands of smaller icy comets and debris. Beyond the orbit of Neptune, the Kuiper Belt is a larger, colder version of the asteroid belt, which is between Mars and Jupiter. In the Kuiper belt there are more known dwarf planets. Pluto shares many similarities to planets, spherical shape and moons, however it is a common member of a large debris field and not the largest member.

The drama of NASA’s New Horizon spacecraft is quite astounding. In order to keep the budget in check, NASA constrained the instrumentation on New Horizons. But the sensational achievement of successfully launching a probe to such a precise fly by, so far away is exquisite. Because of the distance and limited instrumentation, it will take another sixteen months for New Horizons to radio back all the data it has recorded on its historic fly by.

When we have so many immediate concerns right here in our own neighborhood, how should we take all that time to chase around distant objects in the Kuiper Belt? Some of our resources need to be dedicated to long term thinking because our children and grandchildren will be there. As human encroachment overwhelms ecosystems around the globe, unlimited real-estate lays unutilized directly beyond low Earth orbit.

With technology like NASA possesses today, space colonies are entirely within reason. Mars has a surface area as great as the land surface area of Earth, not counting ocean surface area. The moon has an area comparable in size to North America. Humans can populate these areas without needing to wipe out indigenous people and ecosystems. Also, an essentially infinite volume of space for establishing orbital platforms exists.

Besides the need for comfort and security, humans need intrigue and adventure. Without these, people invent every sort of superstition and conspiracy to fill the need. We attack others, we complain about things we don’t understand, we live in fear of all kinds of absurd dangers. Our civilization will be far more healthy and wealthy when we focus more on building the interplanetary economy. Valuable resources are orbiting around all over, just waiting to be collected.

The moon and Mars both are immediately ready for habitation with the requirement for domed habitat and sophisticated gardening. The region of Pluto is more suited for long range space observing and comet patrol. We have the ability to safeguard Earth from devastating meteor collisions, if we can keep up the long term thinking. For that we have to keep improving on spaceflight technologies and cooperation with international neighbors and immediate neighbors.

The United States has all but lost its leadership position in space exploration. Going it alone was never a good strategy anyway. International cooperation builds relationships as it builds success. The science content of the New Horizons mission is valuable enough to have made it worth doing alone. Sharing the cost and sharing the profits would multiply the return in good relations.

During the planning stages of the New Horizons project, two additional moons around Pluto were discovered too late to be included in the mission. Another two of Pluto’s moons were discovered after the probe was already half way there. The number of mysteries about our solar system continues to astonish everyone who keeps watching. With or without our help, the world keeps expanding to include greater realms of space and planets.

The Planetary Society is preparing to send up a solar light sail as soon as next year. With this technology, spacecrafts will be able to roam around the solar system like the sailors of old—riding the wind. This time it will be the solar wind. There will be no end to adventure then.

The main obstacle is not really the will of the people. Around the world thousands of people tried to sign up for the one way ticket to Mars. Who is lagging are the bankers who have locked up our world’s financial resources in austerity packages. Likewise the paranoia of the homeland security industry which always needs to be spying on others and pointing weapons. These folks will also profit by expanding their vision of the world and participating in ventures of future space colonization activities. By walking on the moon, Neil Armstrong founded a legacy for all earthlings.

There are of course many more hurdles to overcome. The number of unknown factors in space pioneering is staggering. Accidents like we’ve witnessed with the space shuttle are liable to occur again. To reduce the chance of these tragedies will require dependable engineers, well educated scientists, and dedicated management. Our steps forward need to be taken carefully, but not timidly.

Leadership in space exploration should be shared between dependable technicians and adventurous young people. When the people support these courageous representatives with the same vigor we use to support our favorite sports team, then we will all win. These heros of the future are going to be making real contributions to our civilization. This is something we have been needing for a long time.

The New Horizons mission to Pluto is happening right now. The lightsail and the one way ticket to Mars are coming up next. And in the works there is the James Webb Space Telescope ready to vastly improve on the fantastic success of the Hubble Space Telescope. The excitement of our place in history is so electric that my hair is standing up. Yes, take care of your local estuary and watershed, but also keep an eye on the adventure ahead of us. It is going to be spectacular for real.

Russ Frizzell is an activist living in Olympia since 2010 and a graduate of The Evergreen State College where he studied Physics and Cosmology.


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