Monday, July 1, 2019

New Horizons, metaphorical and literal

Did you savor the Pluto closeups returned by NASA's New Horizons probe in July 2015? Of course you did -- it's the kind of thing that appeals to the kind of folk who visit SF and Nonsense.

The saga of New Horizons itself is every bit as fascinating, written (to be precise, coauthored) by the man who first dreamed of the mission and eventually became its principal investigator. The book covers the guerilla struggle to interest NASA in the mission concept, the funding wars, the mad dash (once funding was finally approved) to complete the probe while Jupiter and Pluto still had the proper alignment (celestial mechanics is a harsh mistress), the long flight, and the hectic close encounter with Pluto.

In short, I highly recommend Chasing New Horizons: Inside the Epic First Mission to Pluto, by (the aforementioned PI) Alan Stern and fellow scientist/author David Grinspoon.

In my NASA contractor years (although I worked on the Earth Observing System, not robotic planetary probes), I saw a lot of the agency and how things there work. This book rings so true. 

The little space probe that could ...
This blog being about science and science fiction, I'll take this opportunity to also give a shout-out to two (for me, highly memorable) classic SF novels in which Pluto makes a dramatic appearance. 

The first is Larry Niven's debut novel, World of Ptavvs. (It's out of print, except as part of Larry's omnibus Three Books of Known Space, and even then not offered as an ebook. 
The second novel is Robert Heinlein's Have Space Suit—Will Travel (likewise, alas, out of print).

Even as New Horizons was in flight, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) reclassified (demoted?) Pluto to a mere "dwarf" planet. I'll leave you with the observation that although the IAU reached this decision, planetary scientists reject it.

FWIW, I'm with the the planetary scientists: if an object is basically round through its self-gravity and orbits a star? That's a planet! It is not a world's failing when its neighborhood (in this instance, the Kuiper Belt) is crowded.

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