Wednesday, 1 July 2015


On the 14th of July a small and very fast space probe will fly-by Pluto and its menagerie of moons. In the space of a few hours we'll learn more about Pluto and its companions than we have since its discovery on the 18th of February 1930.

In fact we've learnt huge amounts so far even at the huge distances New Horizons is away from the planet (yes PLANET!).

At the moment, we've four exciting missions on-going and actively producing data: five if you include Cassini which just seems to keep going and going to the point where one could even be quite blase about its constant stream of images. OK, there *are* others but for us that particular like planetary exploration...I'll come back to Mars and Jupiter in a moment....

Of the four I'll pick out Rosetta and Philae circling and sitting on a comet nucleus respectively - I think Philae should be renamed Phoenix after its return from the dead. Then there's Dawn orbiting Ceres tantalising us with better and better resolution of a world that was probably considered no more than a lump of rock to one that is possibly even active. Finally New Horizons itself.

We've also lost two probes this year: Messenger and Venus Express as their missions came to an end. Juno is still on its way and hopefully the mission planners will get us a better look at Europa along the way, and of course a flotilla at and on Mars.

I've probably missed a few from the above list - it is getting difficult to keep track especially when even the Chinese surprise us with things such as a quick visit to a passing asteroid!

But despite all of this excitement, New Horizons brings a little sadness: we'll have completed initial exploration of the nine planets. As a child I watched, sometimes in the middle of the night the Voyager probes, especially when Voyager 2 reached Uranus and Neptune. In both cases returning not just surprises but shocks - the cliffs of Miranda, nitrogen geysers on Triton anyone!

Pluto was left alone, unvisited and somewhat unloved.

Now we get a few weeks of excitement and a day or so of wondrous revelations and New Horizons departs giving us our first and last view for a long time of this mysterious place.

And that will be all nine and it comes to an end the first major milestone of the exploration of our Solar System.

There are silver linings to this cloud: the stream of data from all the probes and years of research of New Horizons' data will hopefully provide more impetus to space exploration. We can't stay rooted to our Blue Marble forever and we must pave the way forward, not just in exploring new worlds but also in understand how the Universe operates and what is out there. These space probes furthermore push technology to unexplored boundaries will many unexpected innovations to even our daily lives.

Finally, New Horizons will look back and Pluto, probably go into hibernation and continue to a possible second target. A world that even until the 1980s and 1990s was purely hypothetical. Considering that until 1989 we expected Neptune's moons to be inert and barren rocks and found something completely different, and now expecting the same - at least in terms of surprises - at Pluto, we should have learnt by now, after the exploration of the first nine planets, that whatever comes next is going to be truly wondrous.

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