Where are we?
Closest approach was at 7:49 AM this Tuesday morning, July 14th in Baltimore. Pluto—12,500 kilometers away—was about 22 times the size of the Moon seen by the naked eye. Image mosaics are underway. The next event, occultations of the Sun and Earth by Pluto, begins at 8:45. After that, the same occultations by Charon begin at 10:15.
Of course, we have no way of knowing any of these things really happened until information travels at the leisurely speed of light for 4 hours and 25 minutes to get to Earth. Unfortunately, at this red-hot moment, the spacecraft is too busy with pictures and other observations to turn the antenna towards us to send that information. We have to wait until later this evening when the antenna centers on Earth and sends a radio postcard.
Where are we going?
The outer environs of the solar system, deeper into the Kuiper Belt for another encounter with one of a couple of recently discovered heavenly bodies (if NASA approves a mission extension), thence to the Oort Cloud and onward into the Milky Way.
Where are we from?
Milky Way Galaxy
Universe, Zip 18395782886253402871-981294673.23
This is my last post of the Navigation countdown. We’re seeing Pluto up close and personal—we hope, unless the spacecraft has run into a piece of random debris, in which case we’ll never hear from it again and all those pictures will be lost. We’ll know for sure tonight.
Pluto. Been there, done that. Remember, this is about the voyage, not the destination. We Navigators almost always get you there, and in this case we most definitely got you there, whether the spacecraft is healthy and intact or in tatters. Onward to the next body. Onward with the next mission, to the next dream hatching in our restless souls. It is a never-ending journey.
What’s the point of this exploration? Will any of us ever live on any of these new worlds we’ve paid lots of money to get to? I think not. I think that the era of solar and extra-solar settlement is far beyond the horizon of our lifetimes. We have a lot of wars to fight and disasters to recover from before our evolved descendants ever colonize another world in this solar system or beyond. It will happen, but not soon, not until we’ve evolved the mean-streak and stupidity out of ourselves.
Will we wipe ourselves out? No. The human race is hardy and some will survive the worst disasters, be it nuclear war, devastating climate change, or a random asteroid strike. Some will survive and begin the climb back to civilization and the next disaster, just as it happens in Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz. Read that book if you want a chilling yet poignant depiction of our future. Science fiction writers are the long-term Navigators of our species.
My message, if it’s not clear, is that we have little need to be optimistic in the short run—I think we’ll have a series of disasters and recoveries—but the future is very bright indeed over the long haul of centuries, millennia, or even millions of years. After all, we’ve only been around as a species for a couple of million years on Earth; think what we’ll be like in a couple more!
Meanwhile, life presses on, full of struggle and despair but sometimes with a glimmer of hope on the horizon. The hope is that we learn a little more today than we knew yesterday. The hope is the beginning of the next adventure. Onward to the Kuiper Belt and the outermost reaches of our solar system.
Why go? I think I said it best myself as Voyager finished Neptune a long time ago and headed out toward the deeps of the galaxy. The very fact of her improbable existence cruising among the stars for billions of years to come say this to any potential finders:
I am from the planet Earth. I am of the Human Race. We are small and insignificant but our souls are large because we have set out on a journey to know the Universe.