Commentary by Michael Mackowski
Over the next few weeks the curtains will be pulled back on the deepest, darkest secrets of the Solar System, and Pluto will be revealed. The New Horizons spacecraft has been traveling for almost ten years on a journey to explore this small dwarf planet. With this mission, humankind will have completed the initial reconnaissance of all of the classical planets. In other words, the upcoming fly by of Pluto will be the last time we will see the details of one of these planetary bodies for the first time.
Think about the significance of this. This initial exploration of the solar system has taken over fifty years, from the Mariner 2 Venus fly by in 1962 and the first close-up images of Mars by Mariner 4 in 1964. Some of us who were born at the right time have seen all of these unveilings. Each new space probe changed our view of the planets from fuzzy blobs in telescopes to crater and mountain covered worlds in their own right. As the spacecraft and instruments got more sophisticated, more and more details and wonders were revealed. These achievements surprised us with craters on Mars, volcanoes on Jupiter’s moons, geysers on a moon of Saturn, rings around Uranus, and on and on.
But poor Pluto lies at the edge of the solar system, demoted by some from real planet-hood to merely a “dwarf” chunk of rock and ice. It took over twenty-five years from the initial proposals for a Pluto mission to the July 14 close encounter. What will the New Horizons probe tell us in the coming weeks?
I think that the true ignificance of the New Horizons mission is not what will be revealed about what is on the surface of Pluto, but what it tells us about ourselves. We will never again have a first encounter with a historical planetary body. This means we have sent our robot emissaries to all the major bodies in the Sun’s family. That is an incredibly historic and momentous achievement. This event is more about what humanity is capable of doing than about how many craters are on Pluto. This is an achievement for humanity, for all of the people of Planet Earth, not just for the scientists and engineers. In these times when there is so much news about death and hatred, it can remind us that we are one people all living together on one small planet in a very large universe. Perhaps it can inspire us to look beyond our petty differences and ancient prejudices and consider ourselves as one humanity, joined by our common bond to this fragile planet we call home. Perhaps by conceiving the heavens, we can flourish on Earth.