This is how Pluto looked when Clyde Tombaugh discovered it in 1930. A bright mote, an apparent star that moved in a way that betrayed its planetary nature — for someone who was looking carefully enough.
Things have gotten a bit better with New Horizons; you can see the latest images on NASA’s NH page. Here’s one that’s new as of this post date:
Edit: new image below, 14 JUL:
Quite the improvement, no?
Well, yes. But it has been a long wait, hasn’t it? 85 years. Granted, we could hardly have dispatched an airplane to take a closer look in 1930. Modern rocketry as in its infancy, as was broadcasting. Even if a 1930s era rocket could have been launched at Pluto, we’d hardly have gotten word back of success reaching it, much less a picture.
I do worry that these are the best images I’ll see in my lifetime, and I’m only 45. But NASA’s funding has been either waning or just holding on against inflation these last three decades, not growing, and the bulk of the current crop of Presidential candidates seem to be mostly unenthused by NASA. ‘What’s the point of spending a whole penny on the federal budget dollar on all this sciency stuff? We’ve got people to feed, bomb, feed bombs to, bomb with food, and so forth, right here on Earth.’
Hostility to and/or disinterest in space, NASA, science, and scholarly investigation in general is nothing new. In the 1970s and 80s, Senator William Proxmire (D) of Wisconsin is a ‘fine’ recent example, with his ‘Golden Fleece’ awards that, as often as not, lambasted space and science funding as wasted effort and wasted money. Plenty of commentators, regular folks, and politicians jump on that anti-intellectual, short-view bandwagon from time to time.
Frankly, it’s a nasty and dangerous habit, this idea that exploring the cosmos around us, exploring our own planet further, and learning in general is a waste of money and effort. There’s a lot to be gained by exploration, here and up there. Aren’t you reading this on a computer? Possibly a computer that also telephones people and locates itself by GPS? Thank scientists, scholars, inquisitive types, the space program, all those ‘wastes of money’ that pay off in knowledge and in the things that knowledge makes possible, if you spend the money learning now and have the patience to wait a decade or two for the payoff.
I know, we’re not that great at long-term thinking, most of us. But seriously. Yes, we’re just looking at Pluto, which is hardly going to be useful real estate or mining grounds next week, year, or decade. But every time we do something like this, we don’t just learn more about how our planetary neighbors work. We learn more about communications, propulsion, efficient generation and use of power sources, miniaturization, navigation, and so on, and so forth, and likely things that you and I haven’t thought of yet that will pay off come 2045.
Not to mention, as big as this earth is, it’s a drop in the bucket compared to the rest of the solar system. Planets and asteroids and comets, oh my, swimming in a constant rain of free-to-gather energy that is sunlight (or maybe magnetic if you want to venture to the moons of Saturn and Jupiter and do some tinkering). Sometimes people talk about this ‘high frontier’ as if it could be a relief valve for overpopulation, but no, it’s not that. No more than opening California to colonization relieved crowding in New York City. But a wide frontier is a relief valve for people who are gravely dissatisfied with current affairs at home, and we as a planetary society haven’t really had one of those in quite a few decades now. Yes, there’s a certain lack of open air and flowing water up there among the various possible destinations. So what?
The big ‘so what’ is that we’re doing little practicing of how to keep people alive in places like that. There’s a space station, and 40+ years after people walked on the moon it’s still an itty-bitty one with a few people, entirely supplied from earth. It’s useful, and we learn from it, and we’ve no apparent interest in pushing the boundaries meaningfully as a species. Well, China has done a little talking in that direction, Maybe in response to US talk about sending people to Mars, maybe, one day, well maybe not, or maybe we’ll just push back the ‘maybe’ date… you get the idea. We like talking about it a bit, but few are serious about it, especially among those who would have to speak the loudest to fund such a nutty idea as putting a bunch of people on the moon or Mars to live long term, the politicians. They’re not that interested, and the public isn’t that interested. And that’s a shame. We won’t spread off this rock unless there’s an interest in doing so. Maybe the interest will come too late, after climate change gets nasty enough to cause even middle-class folks serious problems at home. Such a wait-till-the-crisis scenario would be a shame, too. Because, like in the ‘reduce population pressure’ scenario, colonizing the moon or Mars of anything else out there would not be a way to evacuate millions or billions of people in troubles.
But it would be a great way to spread the human race out a bit so that it’s not in danger of croaking en masse if a massive disaster of some sort were to loom. And it would, if no disaster comes to call, be a great way to expand the knowledge, both practical and abstract, of the human race as a whole — and that expansion would all be fuel for the next round of life-improving gadgets just as food preservation, improved transportation, construction and maintenance of internets, and so forth have been for us.
Don’t be selfish. Help the people of 2100 surpass us as much as we’ve surpassed the people of 1930.