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I’ve always been fascinated by space. I cherish books which I’ve had since childhood. Published around 1957, these well-worn treasures are always in view in my office bookcase. So, winding up living in Southern New Mexico near the White Sands Missile Range has been a happy coincidence since it’s a hotbed of all things astronomy and space! Post-World War II, Werner Von Braun was brought here to test rockets for the U.S. Army and captured V-2 rockets carried hundreds of payloads.
NASA’s White Sands Space Harbor (WSSH), was the primary training area for space shuttle pilots flying practice approaches and landings in the Shuttle Training Aircraft and served as a backup landing site (Shuttle Columbia landed here on March 30, 1982). And I was able to witness the final flyover of the space shuttle Endeavour on its way it’s final home in California on September 20, 2012. NASA’s Johnson Space Center, which has supported many missions, is a few miles from my home. I watched as Endeavour circled over White Sands and the NASA facilities on Route 70 in a final goodbye, swung back over the assisted-living facility where my mother was at the time and then flew right over me as I stood on the dam and then turned toward the west. I had tears in my eyes as I simply loved the space shuttle era! And this haunting video of the flyover brings tears to my eyes now! I met Alan Hale, of Hale-Bopp Comet fame at the local co-op one day and had lunch with him on his next visit to Las Cruces from his home in Cloudcroft. Who could have imagined that when I viewed the comet back in 1997 in New Jersey I would someday chatting with one of the discoverers! I also built a 4.5″ Dobsonian reflector telescope telescope one summer at a class sponsored by the Astronomical Society…and later had my scope signed by John Dobson himself when he visited the club! And, the Spaceport which is waiting for Richard Branson’s commercial edge of space flights to become operable, is just a short distance away.
But even more important now is the fact that Clyde Tombaugh, who discovered Pluto, lived and passed away here…and some of his ashes are aboard the New Horizons spacecraft! See Clyde Tombaugh: Astronomer Who Discovered Pluto, from Space.com.
Tombaugh was a founder of the local Unitarian Church and he is memorialized in a stunning stained glass window in the Tombaugh Gallery, which houses a variety art exhibitions.
It was quite by accident (or was it synchronicity?) that I’ve reconnected with this Pluto mission. I’ve been clearing out a lot of old stuff lately…clothes, files, and all sort of stray papers. Recently, I rediscovered a lost printout that I promptly restored to a prominent place in my office.
This single piece of paper reads:
NEW HORIZONS MISSION
Shedding Light on Frontier Worlds
On August 30, 2005
Thank you for joining the first mission to the last planet! A compact
disc bearing your name will be included on the New Horizons spacecraft,
set for the first voyage to a new class of planets on the solar system’s
Come with us as we complete the reconnaissance of the solar system and unlock
the secrets of Pluto, its moon, Charon, and the Kuiper Belt.
Certificate No. 277229
The timing couldn’t have been more perfect. On December 6, 2014, NASA posted this update on the mission entitled “On Pluto’s Doorstep, NASA’s New Horizons Spacecraft Awakens for Encounter.” (http://www.nasa.gov/newhorizons/on-plutos-doorstep-new-horizons-spacecraft-awakens-for-encounter/#.VLWz3HuW6oN)
After a voyage of nearly nine years and three billion miles —the farthest any space mission has ever traveled to reach its primary target – NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft came out of hibernation today for its long-awaited 2015 encounter with the Pluto system.
Operators at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., confirmed at 9:53 p.m. (EST) that New Horizons, operating on pre-programmed computer commands, had switched from hibernation to “active” mode. Moving at light speed, the radio signal from New Horizons – currently more than 2.9 billion miles from Earth, and just over 162 million miles from Pluto – needed four hours and 26 minutes to reach NASA’s Deep Space Network station in Canberra, Australia.
“This is a watershed event that signals the end of New Horizons crossing of a vast ocean of space to the very frontier of our solar system, and the beginning of the mission’s primary objective: the exploration of Pluto and its many moons in 2015,” said Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator from Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colo.
With a seven-instrument science payload that includes advanced imaging infrared and ultraviolet spectrometers, a compact multicolored camera, a high-resolution telescopic camera, two powerful particle spectrometers and a space-dust detector, New Horizons will begin observing the Pluto system on Jan. 15.
New Horizons’ closest approach to Pluto will occur on July 14, but plenty of highlights are expected before then, including, by mid-May, views of the Pluto system better than what the mighty Hubble Space Telescope can provide of the dwarf planet and its moons.
“New Horizons is on a journey to a new class of planets we’ve never seen, in a place we’ve never been before,” says New Horizons Project Scientist Hal Weaver, of APL. “For decades we thought Pluto was this odd little body on the planetary outskirts; now we know it’s really a gateway to an entire region of new worlds in the Kuiper Belt, and New Horizons is going to provide the first close-up look at them.”
January 15th! With very little fanfare, New Horizons is going places where no spacecraft has gone before! It is happening right now!
In a January 5th article in Time Magazine entitled “ Hello Pluto! NASA’s Visit to the Mystery World Begins,” Alan Stern who has led the project writes:
It’s not exactly top secret, but it is too little known: this month, a small, robot spacecraft—built, launched and guided by a team of over 2,500 Americans—will begin the exploration of far-away Pluto and its five known moons. Lasting from January through July, this epic journey is very much the Everest of planetary exploration.
New Horizons already set records when it was launched in 2006 by becoming the fastest spacecraft to leave the Earth—reaching the orbit of the moon in just nine hours, about 10 times more quickly than the Apollo spacecraft did. Now, after traveling for nine straight years at an average speed of 39,000 m.p.h. (59,000 km/h)—equivalent to L.A. to New York in four minutes—it is at last approaching its historic rendezvous. No spacecraft has ever ventured farther—3 billion miles (4.8 billion km)—to reach its primary target.
At its closest approach, New Horizons will pass Pluto at a distance of just 6,000 miles (9,700 km). It will send back images at resolutions so high that if it were flying over New York City at the same altitude, it could count wharves on the Hudson River and ponds in Central Park. It will also take measurements of Pluto’s composition and atmosphere, study its moons, and more.
In 2003, the National Academy of Sciences ranked visiting the Pluto system at the very top of NASA’s exploration priorities. Why? Because in the 1990s, planetary astronomers discovered a vast structure in our solar system, a previously unknown disk of comets and small planets out beyond Neptune, called the Kuiper Belt. Pluto was the first of many small planets discovered out there, and it is still both the brightest and the largest one known.
The Kuiper Belt is the largest mapped structure in our planetary system, three times as big as all the territory from the sun out to Neptune’s orbit. The comets and small planets that make it up are valuable because they represent the astronomical equivalent of an archeological dig, reaching back to the era of planet formation, 4.6 billion years ago.
Nothing like the exploration that New Horizons is about to undertake has happened in a generation, and nothing like it is planned or even contemplated to happen again. It is likely the last time in our lifetimes that a new planet will be explored. This is more than scientifically important—though it certainly is that. It’s also a reminder of what American technology, culture and daring, on its game, can do.
So… my name and certificate number on a disc that is on a small craft…and the most amazing space mission to date!
To the edge of our solar system…and beyond!
Filed under: Life, World News | Tagged: Alan Hale, Charon, Clyde Tombaugh, Dobsonian telescope, Hale-Bopp Comet, John Dobson, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, Kuiper Belt, Las Cruces Astronomical Society, Las Cruces NM, NASA, NASA Johnson Space Center, New Horizons Mission, New Horizons Mission Participation Certificate, NM Spaceport, Pluto, Richard Branson, Shuttle Columbia, Shuttle Endeavour farewell flight, solar system, Unitarian Church Tombaugh Gallery, V-2 rockets, Werner Von Braun, White Sands Missile Range, White Sands Space Harbor (WSSH) | Leave a comment »