When the New Horizons spacecraft left our little lonely rock on January 19, 2006, iPhones hadn’t been invented yet. Gas prices were under $2.50 and Hummer sales had yet to peak. Facebook laid claim to a meager five million users and the most popular songs on the radio were by the likes of Fall Out Boy, Mary J. Blige, and D4L. You still used AOL instant messenger, and the Patriots were reigning Super Bowl champs, so I guess some things never change.
Those were the good old days when Pluto, that distant frozen boulder and the object of our astronomical affections, was, in fact, still a planet.
New Horizons has been barreling toward Pluto for nine and a half years, blasting off Earth at 36,000 miles per hour, more than twice as fast as the orbiting speed of the International Space Station, which, to its credit, is a vehicle doubling as an extraplanetary house for astronauts on a very long holiday. When you take into account the speed of the earth from which New Horizons launched, the little ship was moving at a clip of 100,000 miles per hour away from the sun. Hauling, is what it was doing.
That means that, very possibly, unless you are John Kerry or an intercontinental pilot, New Horizons travels farther in a single day than you will travel in your lifetime.
By now, our intrepid little engine that, apparently, really, really could, has chugged along for three billion miles, and is so precisely targeted as to pass within 8,000 miles of Pluto’s surface. Now that’s good driving.
But what is most amazing about the New Horizon’s decade-long journey isn’t the speed or the distance traveled; it’s that it has happened at all.
It seems there are so many reasons why it shouldn’t have, and so it is all the more incredible that it has.
For one thing, space travel is enormously dangerous. The Challenger and the Columbia come to mind, of course. Scaled Composites, the X-Prize-winning spacelight company, lost three of its own when one of their craft exploded on the ground in 2007. Even as recently as last October, one Virgin Galactic pilot was killed and another injured when their SpaceShipTwo crashed in the Mojave desert.
For another thing, we still know so little about space. We are not sure whether or not Pluto has rings, or whether its moon Charon has an ocean on it, and yet we spent millions of dollars to fly toward that mysterious object anyway. We do not know where the universe’s hugely energetic cosmic rays come from. We “discover” particles based on prediction, not observation. Dark energy, the thing that is thought to compose nearly 75 percent of the universe, has never even been detected. While mankind has been looking to heavens for millennia, and somewhat intelligently for centuries, nearly all of our knowledge about the history and composition of anything outside of our own atmosphere has been discovered only in the last fifty years. And it is minimal, as engineers and physicists will undoubtedly look back and say fifty years from now.
And that brings us to the third reason the New Horizon’s journey is so miraculous. Quite simply, fifty years ago, it would have been impossible. The computers and cameras didn’t exist. One hundred years ago, the voyage would have been nigh unthinkable. The Wright brothers had only just test-flown their winged machines, and they were still not what you would call safe. A person born in 1900 would be absolutely stunned, stunned beyond belief, at what’s happening right now. A person born two hundred years ago might die from the shock. Shock that we live in a world where you can fly around the globe on a whim, find any piece of information your heart desires with the click of a button, express yourself to the universe as freely and as crudely as you please with another click, and communicate with people on the other side of the world instantly. What’s more, we can now communicate with spacecraft at the edge of our solar system, though, with light taking a drowsy 4.5 hours to move from Earth to Pluto and another 4.5 to get back, it’s not as though information is moving between New Horizons and Houston instantaneously.
It’s simply unbelievable, and it’s only getting crazier.
In the nine years it’s taken New Horizons to reach Pluto, so much has changed in terms of our technology and computing power. Our knowledge is, frighteningly, increasing not linearly, but exponentially. Before long we may very well be able to send out a spacecraft that can catch up to New Horizons and surpass it, that can land on Pluto and terraform it, that can bring human beings to the outer reaches of our little Milky Way home.
We are living in a new Age of Discovery. Columbus is only now setting his first foot down in the waters of a foreign and foreboding coast, slowly wading to a strange shore where the moons are ever waning.