The New Horizons Pluto Mission Proves We Need to Invest More in Space Exploration

The New Horizons Pluto Mission Proves We Need to Invest More in Space Exploration
Source: NASA
Source: NASA

At around 7:50 a.m. on Tuesday, the NASA spacecraft New Horizons flew past Pluto after a nine-and-a-half-year journey through the blackness of space. It's the closest humankind has come to our solar system's farthest and smallest neighbor. 

A room full of excited astrophysicists, researchers and scientists had been waiting for the fly-by for the 13-odd years since NASA first approved the New Horizons mission, and at that moment they erupted in applause.

The New Horizons team
Source: YouTube

Pluto may be billions of miles from Earth, and the likelihood of anyone stepping foot on it in our lifetime, or being able to gain any sort of tangible benefit from the chilly little dwarf, is extremely slim. But scholars and scientists think this mission could lead to some of the most important discoveries in current space exploration.

The New Horizons mission is just the beginning — or it will be, if we can afford to keep going. NASA's history is full of funding struggles. Despite all the technologies for which we have NASA to thank, like satellite TV, solar power and artificial limbs, the percentage of the United States' budget dedicated to NASA spending has been in a constant state of decline since the 1960s. Here's why that needs to change.

"New Horizons shows how a medium-sized budget can be turned into science that changes entire textbook chapters."

1. New Horizons can bring us exceptional findings.

"The instruments aboard the New Horizons spacecraft will 'reveal' Pluto and Charon's surfaces and map their make-up and atmospheres with detail orders of magnitude greater than our current data sets," said New Horizons' co-investigator and deputy project scientist Kimberly Ennico of NASA's Ames Research Center, according to Phys.org. "We will also get unique data sets of the smaller moons — Nix, Kerberos, Styx, Hydra — that cannot be obtained from our existing telescopes on and around Earth."

During the mission update Tuesday morning, Alan Stern, the New Horizons mission manager and principal investigator, said data from the fly-by should be published Tuesday night, depending on how the spacecraft fares around Pluto's atmosphere, with a "16-month waterfall" of data and photographs to keep science bloggers busy for a while.

2. It will inspire young scientists like Clyde Tombaugh

The New Horizons took with it a passenger: the remains of Pluto's discoverer, Clyde Tombaugh, who discovered the planet in 1930, when he was 24 years old. 

Venetia Burney, the woman who named Pluto when she was just 11 years old, didn't live to see the fly-by. She died in 2009, three years after Pluto was downgraded to a dwarf planet.

3. We're actually exploring new worlds. Just ask Neil deGrasse Tyson.

As astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson said during an event at the American Museum of Natural History, the exploration of Pluto is momentous, because something like this hasn't happened in a very long time.

"To see a distant object for the first time is some of the oldest emotions humans have ever had ever since we left the cave," he told the audience at the museum's "Breakfast at Pluto" event. 

"It's not every day where we get to see something for the first time that has never been seen by another human being." — Neil deGrasse Tyson

"In those days, not everyone actually had that experience. It had to be communicated in some way, and then you would imagine it. Whereas here ... the Web has given all of us sort of equal access ... to vicariously be the explorers ourselves. And given how much we have explored, it's not every day where we get to see something for the first time that has never been seen by another human being."

Source: YouTube

4. New Horizons has already taught us so much about Pluto. 

As New Horizons closes in on its destination, we've already learned much more about the dwarf planet. First, we now have visual evidence that Pluto is red — or reddish brown — instead of a grayish blue. We have new information about the actual size of the planet. And we now know it has a massive, 1,200-mile-wide "heart" creeping up from the southern hemisphere. 

Astronomer Mike Brown, the man credited as the "Pluto killer" for downgrading Pluto to a dwarf planet in 2006, even posted his commentary on Twitter.

5. Scientists think New Horizons is huge. 

"By studying Pluto, we gain better insight into the formation of our solar system, into the types of geology that exist on distant worlds and ultimately a view into the incredible variety of rocky objects that can exist orbiting a star," Kevin Hainline, an astrophysicist from Dartmouth College, told Mic

"The best view of Pluto, up until the last few weeks, was a blurry, low-resolution image from the Hubble Space Telescope, one of our greatest space-based eyepieces," Hainline said. "In the next few days and weeks we will be able to look at the dwarf planet in a way no human has ever had a chance to, rewriting textbooks and our view of what can exist on the edge of the solar system."

The Kuiper Belt could show us not only where we came from, but where we're going.

As Alan Stern said during the update, being able to accurately map Pluto also means being able to see how it got its topography. The Kuiper Belt, where Pluto is located, is, according to NASA, the source of cometary impactors — comets that hit planets — on Earth, maybe even like the one responsible for wiping out the dinosaurs. The New Horizons data shows not only the history of these impacts on the surface, but evidence that it probably snows there, too.

6. We don't (yet) know what comes after Pluto.

It makes sense for the New Horizons team to caveat the possible extension of the mission on not just funding, but the spacecraft's safe passage by Pluto's atmosphere without getting celestially shot at by Kuiper Belt comets. Most of the time, you just have to cross your fingers there aren't any unknown variables lurking in the darkness.

An extended mission would involve a deeper dive into the Kuiper Belt to examine other targets, like a 37-mile wide body named 2014 MT69 and another, farther, brighter and larger body called 2014 MT70.

"We can only go to one of these, so we have to make the decision," Simon Porter, and astronomer on the New Horizons team, told Discovery. "MT69 is the front-runner because it's lower Delta-v (change in velocity). Engineers love that. On the other hand, they kind of hate that it's dimmer, because on approach we might end up using more fuel for final (course) corrections."

But all the mysterious, could-be planetary discoveries in the solar system don't change one important fact: 

It all costs money.

We're staring the future as we know it right in the eye. But first we're going to need better glasses.

Finding funding: The current New Horizons mission, including the spacecraft and instruments, launch, operations, research and outreach, cost $700 million — and that doesn't include the extension to the Kuiper Belt. When the New Horizons team gets confirmation that its wayward craft made it through the fray, then it can ask for the extra cash. But it's a visit that wouldn't happen until 2019. And if the first near-decade trip cost $700 million, tacking on four more years of mission operations won't come cheap.

NASA's had bad luck with budget cuts since the '90s. The U.S. House of Representatives wanted to cut funding to NASA's Earth sciences budget to put more money on the books for space-flight programs, which doesn't bode well for an already lean program that needs serious cash to fuel its endeavors.

If we're going to get a better sense of what the Kuiper Belt means for not only where we came from, but where we're going, we need to continue to support it.

"New Horizons shows how a medium-sized budget can be turned into science that changes entire textbook chapters," Hainline told Mic. "While New Horizons science has been fascinating, it's been great to see the variety of activities that educators can use at all age levels to help bring Pluto science to their classrooms and to the public."

New Horizons is just the first of NASA's hopefully extensive New Frontiers missions, which involve a lot of specific, robotically spearheaded exploratory quests. Other missions on the bill include an in-depth study of Jupiter and a sample-retrieval trip to a near-Earth asteroid chock full of the life-sustaining molecule carbon. These are the kinds of missions that tell us where we came from. And they're the missions that tell us how to extend our reach into the universe.

We're staring the future as we know it right in the eye. But first we're going to need better glasses.