Geeking Out: Pluto Edition

Something a lot of people, even people who know me very well, probably don’t know about me: I’m a bit of a closet space geek. I’ve been a science fiction fan for as long as I can remember, and as a child of the 80s grew up on Star Trek, Star Wars, and the rest of the usual sci-fi classics of my generation (and of course readers of this blog will know that in recent years I have become a pretty big Dr. Who fan). I would always pick up sci-fi novels when I was a teenager, and I particularly remember loving the Foundation series by Asimov. But beyond Sci-Fi I was always interested in the actual science behind space, and still remember finding books in my elementary school library about rocketry, quantum physics, and space exploration which I devoured (or at least tried to, most of it was way over my head). I built and flew model rockets. I even went to “space camp” a couple times.

We probably all remember at least some of our answers to what we wanted to be when we grew up. There were 4 distinct phases to mine: Ghostbuster (until I realized that I am actually pretty scared of ghosts) followed by Paleontologist (until I realized that digging in the dirt VERY slowly isn’t actually that much fun) followed by what I am going to rather inexactly call “space dude”. Astronaut is of course always a sexy job, but I was realistic even at that age that I didn’t exactly have the body type of a test pilot. Being a rocket scientist sounded pretty good as well, and I remember some pretty serious day dreams in my pre-teen years of pursuing something in the engineering or science realms related to space. However those dreams soon enough came crashing back to Earth (pardon the pun) with the following realization: I neither am very good at, nor very much enjoy, math. And that appeared to be pretty much a career limiting move when it comes to the space sciences.

Thus I eventually settled on my last, best destiny: public policy. However over the last number of years I’ve realized that there is actually an overlap in my professional pursuits and my childhood interests in that space policy is not only a thing, but arguably an increasingly important one. Though my day job for much of the past decade has focused on a very different type of intersection between technology and public policy, I still love reading and learning about all things space related.

So I have been following with great interest the big year for space exploration that has been happening with the first visits to some of the more inaccessible reaches of our solar system. First there was the landing in November of the Philae lander on comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, the first ever “soft” landing on a comet (“soft” being in quotation marks as it ended up being a bit of a bumpy ride). Then the Dawn spacecraft using a remarkable ion propulsion system became the first ever spacecraft to orbit two different extraterrestrial bodies when it entered into orbit around Ceres, the largest object in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Amongst other things, it discovered the enigmatic “bright spots” on Ceres’ surface which have still yet to be explained.

However for most people the main attraction of the 2014/15 space exploration season is taking place as we speak. The New Horizons spacecraft which launched from Earth some 9 1/2 years ago, is about to reach Pluto with it’s closest approach taking place in just a few hours at 7:49am EST July 14th. This is the first time we will have ever seen Pluto up close, the last of the major bodies in our Solar System to receive a visit from us humans. The Voyager era was before my time, so this is really the first time in my lifetime that we are getting to experience the thrill of newly exploring a major body in our solar system. Up until a few weeks ago, Pluto and its moons were nothing but a few pixels in even our best telescopes. But now with even just the preliminary images we are starting to get a fascinating look at this previously unknown world.

Image of Pluto taken by New Horizons on July 12 from a distance of 1.6 million miles (2.5 million kilometers). Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute
Image of Pluto taken by New Horizons on July 12 from a distance of 1.6 million miles (2.5 million kilometers). Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

For those who are interested in learning more about the New Horizons mission and following it as starts sending back data from its flyby, by far the best resource I have come across is Emily Lakdawalla’s blog on Start with her “What to expect when you’re expecting a flyby” post and you can follow the breadcrumbs from there. I also have a Twitter list of over 100 space peeps which I have been slowly building which will provide you with a pretty good live look at what is going on as many of them are following the final approach to the Pluto system at the mission control centre.

Aside from the hard science of the mission, Pluto holds a special place in our collective psyche and expect to see some more light-hearted takes on this new chapter of space exploration. Earlier this week I stumbled upon this music video tribute to Pluto which aside from being fun and catchy, is actually also surprisingly touching:

As the high-resolution images start coming in over the next few days, no doubt Pluto will be gracing newscasts and newspapers around the globe. In fact this is likely to be one of the highest profile moments for space exploration we have seen in many years. Which I think is more than a little sad.

Sad because there are so many amazing things happening in the field of space exploration right now which for most people are flying completely under the radar. The commercialization of space exploration with the emergence of companies like Space X and Virgin Galactic. The rapid advancement of space programs in non-traditional space-faring nations such as India and China (In the past 18 months alone China landed a rover on the Moon and India put a probe into orbit around Mars). The search for exoplanets which has already found thousands of planets around stars in just our little corner of the galaxy. Big advancements in astronomy including the planned launch in 2018 of the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, the James Webb Space Telescope. The beginnings of a mission to send a probe to Jupiter’s moon Europa to look for signs of life beneath its frozen oceans. The development of the Space Launch System and Orion Program by NASA with plans within the next decade to send humans on a near-Earth asteroid re-direction mission, and possibly back to the Moon or on to Mars – which will be the first time since the Apollo Moon landings that there has been a serious program to send humans beyond Low Earth Orbit. I could go on, and each of these topics could merit not just a post but volumes onto themselves.

All that to say, there are some amazing things happening right now in the realm of space exploration. Yet not only is the public awareness of what is happening in this field shockingly low, but so too is government support. For example, spending on space programs make up just a fraction of what is spent on the military. With some quick Wikipedia research, here is a snapshot of how annual expenditures compare in the top ten spending countries on space vs. their military expenditures for the most recent years available.

Country Space Program Military %
United States 17,800,000,000 518,000,000,000 3.44%
Russia 5,600,000,000 70,000,000,000 8.00%
France 2,500,000,000 53,100,000,000 4.71%
Japan 2,460,000,000 47,700,000,000 5.16%
Germany 2,000,000,000 43,900,000,000 4.56%
Italy 1,800,000,000 24,300,000,000 7.41%
China 1,300,000,000 129,400,000,000 1.00%
India 1,100,000,000 45,200,000,000 2.43%
Canada 488,000,000 20,100,000,000 2.43%
United Kingdom 414,000,000 61,800,000,000 0.67%

With space program spending being in the single digits as a percentage comparison to military spending in each of these countries, that means it is just a fraction of a percentage point compared to the overall national budget. For example, in the United States NASA’s budget is currently less than 0.5% of the national budget, and even during the hight of the Apollo program was less than 4.5%.

My point being this: so many amazing things are happening in the field of space exploration in spite of the remarkably low levels of funding, just imagine what could be done if for example we collectively doubled humanities’ spending on space programs by re-purposing a few percentage points of military spending to the peaceful exploration of our cosmic neighbourhood. The breadth and speed at which our reach, knowledge, and experience as a species would increase would be staggering. Moments like the New Horizons mission remind us that we are living in the future; but that future won’t last long if our public policy priorities don’t follow.

By Ryan Androsoff

You can find my professional profile here:

All views expressed on this site are strictly my own.

One reply on “Geeking Out: Pluto Edition”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.