By Tod R. Lauer
Two years ago this coming July, the long journey of NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft to Pluto was approaching its end. Years earlier we had used New Horizons’ long-range camera to spot Pluto as a faint point of light off the bow of the spacecraft, but it took until April of 2015 for Pluto to begin to slowly, slowly reveal itself as an incredible new world. The best images would come on the day of closest approach, July 14, 2015, but three months out we cranked up our cameras to document our steady approach. And so we watched as, week by week, and then day by day, New Horizons beamed back ever more detailed images of Pluto from the edge of the solar system.
The distant pictures, however, were more enigmatic than anything. The dot of light became a fuzzy blob, which became a little disk with bright and dark markings, which became a bigger disk with finer bright and dark markings. We couldn’t help but to speculate on what we were seeing, but the geologists and geophysicists on the team weren’t really saying that much beyond “It’s not geology, yet.” Consider an open book resting on a table across the room. From where you’re standing you see a gray mass of printed text. Maybe if you squint you can see that the mass is organized into lines and words, but that’s about it. To read it, to learn from it, you have to walk over and pick it up.
So it is with planets. We explore the worlds of our solar system by sending spacecraft across immense distances on multiyear missions to get close enough to read their stories directly. We’ve sent rovers across the dry lakebeds of Mars. We’ve watched immense thunderstorms hurl lighting bolts across the skies of Jupiter. We’ve plumbed the methane seas of Titan, and dived inside the rings of Saturn. Our journeys have made these places real. We’ve always been rewarded with startling surprises – strange new worlds with hard won new knowledge.
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