Today is the day Pluto, the former planet, will finally go from an artist’s conception to a real, tangible photograph. Nine years after the New Horizons spacecraft took off – and after Pluto’s demotion to a dwarf planet – we are finally there.
I grew up with photos of the planets. I never knew a time when we didn’t have a firsthand view of Jupiter’s red spot, of Saturn’s rings, of Neptune’s almost serene haze. But Pluto was always a drawing.
The journey to the outer planets began six year before I was even born. Voyager 1 took off on September 5 (my birthday), 1977 and, along with its sister spacecraft Voyager 2, allowed us to see with crystal clear vision the giants of our cosmic neighborhood that once appeared little more than dots in the sky. I was six years old when the last planet was photographed.
The visit to Pluto was a long time coming, and it may have lost its status as a full planet, but I am incredibly excited by today’s flyby. Clear photos of Pluto will be the most tangible payoff, but the real win is for science itself. It took about a century to go from barely flying, to exiting the solar system.
Many will complain about government spending, and NASA is a favorite target. But I cannot name any government agency that has had more success. Voyager long ago finished its mission, and yet it remains active, sending surprising new data to this day. We should be so lucky that everything humans build would last this long beyond its expected lifespan. New Horizons will join in its exit of the solar system, a lasting message from humanity to the cosmos.
To me nothing is more exciting than space. The scale of the universe, the diversity of its structure, the secrets it still holds, all are far more fascinating than any tale we have ever conceived. It is also humbling. Wonder and humility are two things we need now more than ever.