During a week of revelations about the strange worlds at the edge of the solar system, I repeatedly heard a question that often comes up about space: “why bother?”
It’s a fair challenge. What is the point of spending taxpayers’ money on a venture to Pluto or some other frigid corner of the cosmos?
Or having some of our greatest brains devoted to studying alien rock and ice when they could be working on problems much closer to home?
And nobody should duck the question. So here goes: should journalists like me, along with camera crews, even cover an event like the New Horizons mission?
This was first brought home to me during the European Space Agency’s dramatic touchdown on a comet last November.
I thought the achievement was astounding and the excitement at the time was infectious. It even led to my first on-air hug.
But in the middle of it all, as my Twitter feed was in overdrive, I spotted a message from someone who was less than impressed. How would the knowledge gained from the venture, I was asked, benefit mankind?
And something similar happened a few days ago at the very moment that the first signals confirmed that the Pluto flypast had worked.
One person demanded to know why the money spent on the spacecraft had not been used to help hungry people here on Earth. Another suggested that the mission left him as cold as Pluto itself.
So what is the justification for making an effort to explore space?
Back in the Cold War, there was the obvious motive for the United States and the old Soviet Union of demonstrating technological prowess.
But since then the push to investigate the Solar System has been much more about basic research.
From conversations with several of the mission scientists in the past few days, it’s clear there’s a burning desire to explain things that have remained mysterious until now.
Some of these are fundamental – like how the planets formed or how the moons were created or why the solar system has such a bizarre outer zone inhabited by Pluto.
Others’ questions are more technical such as what processes are under way on Pluto’s surface to keep smoothing over the craters left by meteorites or whether there’s enough internal warmth to produce liquid water.
And for many people outside the field of planetary science, these issues might well be beguiling too – after all, they are essentially about the workings of our own neighbourhood in space.
The driver of the shuttle bus running between the Pluto press centre and the car park was among those fascinated by the mission – and the fact that after nine and half years of travel the New Horizons spacecraft arrived at its rendezvous 72 seconds early. To him, the feat was amazing in its own right.
But others still shrug their shoulders and ask what the fuss is about.
So when the “why bother?” question was put to me on air a few days ago, I found myself talking about our innate desire to explore.
I argued that our species has an instinctive curiosity. The same drive that urges us to climb to the brow of a hill in order to look over it also inspires a child to turn the next page.
And in the case of the chief scientist on the Pluto Mission, Alan Stern, it led him to repeatedly seek funding for his spacecraft when year after year he was rejected.
Persistence pays off?
So, I wondered, what would we have thought if Christopher Columbus or Captain Cook had spotted an unmapped coastline but turned away with a look of indifference and had not bothered to land?
To them, the lure of exotic new sights and undiscovered realms proved overwhelming. And nothing has changed.
The long trek to the edge of the Solar System paid off by producing staggering glimpses of alien worlds. When we all first saw the giant mountains of ice on Pluto and vast canyons on Charon, it took the breath away. And the images caught the imagination around the world.
The most powerful answer to the question “why bother?” may be the simplest: the thrill of witnessing discovery is its own reward.
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NASA says its New Horizons spacecraft completed a historic flyby of Pluto, making its closest pass at 7:49 a.m. ET. Tuesday.
(CNN)NASA says its New Horizons spacecraft completed a historic flyby of Pluto on Tuesday, making its closest pass over the small, icy world at 7:49 a.m. ET.
The unmanned, piano-sized spacecraft was expected to be traveling nearly 31,000 miles per hour when it passed about 7,750 miles over Pluto.
It’s the first mission to Pluto and its five moons.
Because the spacecraft will be busy gathering data during the flyby, it won’t phone home to update its status until around 9 p.m. ET on Tuesday.
“That’s going to be a very highly anticipated event,” Alan Stern, the mission’s principal investigator said at a briefing Monday.
The wait will be a tense one.
“There’s that small element of danger, so I think we’re all going to breathe the final sigh of relief at 9 p.m., and that’s when we can really call it a successful flyby,” Stern said.
Quiz: Test your knowledge of Pluto
When will you see photos from the flyby? It takes four hours for the probe to get a signal back to Earth, and then NASA has to process the data. Mission managers expect the images from the close encounter to be released online and on NASA TV at 3 p.m. ET on Wednesday.
Scientists on Monday said New Horizons already has settled one debate about Pluto — it’s size. Information gathered by the probe indicates Pluto is 1,473 miles (2,370 kilometers) in diameter. That’s somewhat bigger than earlier estimates, and it means Pluto is larger than all other known solar system objects beyond the orbit of Neptune.
Probe is carrying ashes of man who discovered Pluto
The probe already has beamed back several crisp photos of Pluto and its largest moon, Charon.
“Pluto and Charon are both mind-blowing,” Stern told CNN on Saturday. “I think that the biggest surprise is the complexity we’re seeing in both objects.”
The mission completes what NASA calls the reconnaissance of the classical solar system, and it makes the United States the first nation to send a space probe to every planet from Mercury to Pluto. The probe traveled more than 3 billion miles to reach Pluto.
Why go to Pluto?
New Horizon’s core science mission is to map the surfaces of Pluto and Charon. It also will study their atmosphere.
The spacecraft was launched on January 19, 2006, before the big debate started over Pluto’s status as a planet. In August of that year, the International Astronomical Union reclassified Pluto as a dwarf planet.
But Stern disagrees with the IAU’s decision.
“We’re just learning that a lot of planets are small planets, and we didn’t know that before,” Stern said earlier. “Fact is, in planetary science, objects such as Pluto and the other dwarf planets in the Kuiper Belt are considered planets and called planets in everyday discourse in scientific meetings.”
New Horizons has seven instruments on board to help scientists better understand how Pluto and its moons fit in with the rest of the planets in our solar system.
The planets closest to our sun — Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars — are rocky. Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune are gas giants. But Pluto is different: Even though it is out beyond the gas giants, it has a solid, icy surface.
New Horizons looks like a gold foil-covered grand piano. It’s is 27 inches (0.7 meters) tall, 83 inches (2.1 meters) long and 108 inches (2.7 meters) wide. It weighed 1,054 pounds (478 kilograms) at launch.
The probe won’t orbit Pluto and it won’t land. Instead, it will keep flying, heading deeper into the Kuiper Belt, a region that scientists think is filled with hundreds of small, icy objects.
“The universe has a lot more variety than we thought about, and that’s wonderful,” Stern said. “The most exciting discoveries will likely be the ones we don’t anticipate.”
Stern said mission managers will decide later this year where to point New Horizons for the next part of its journey.
NASA’s New Horizons probe makes history at Pluto – CNN.com” target=”_blank”>Read More
The closer New Horizons gets to Pluto, the more puzzling the dwarf planet becomes.
The latest image released by NASA highlights four mysterious dark spots lined up along Pluto’s equator. Each of the spots is about 300 miles across, and they are evenly spaced along a dark belt that rings the planet’s surface.
When New Horizons spied the spots a few weeks ago, mission scientists were left scratching their heads.
“It’s a real puzzle — we don’t know what the spots are,” Alan Stern, the mission’s principal investigator, said at the time.
They still don’t. The new images, taken by New Horizons from about 2.5 million miles away, reveal that the boundaries of the circles aren’t sharp but irregular. This could be a sign that whatever process created the dark areas was more complicated than scientists first thought.
“We can’t tell whether they’re plateaus or plains, or whether they’re brightness variations on a completely smooth surface,” Jeff Moore, a member of the New Horizons team based at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif., said in a statement.
Curt Niebur, the mission’s program scientist at NASA headquarters in Washington, said the position of the spots was perplexing too.
“It’s weird that they’re spaced so regularly,” he said in the statement.
Unfortunately, the scientists aren’t likely to get answers from Tuesday’s historic flyby, which will take place at 3:49 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time. The spotted side of the planet will be facing toward the large moon Charon and away from New Horizons as it zooms past at 36,000 mph.
That means this picture is “the last, best look that anyone will have of Pluto’s far side for decades to come,” Stern said.
For more science news, follow me on Twitter @LATkarenkaplan and “like” Los Angeles Times Science & Health on Facebook.