Unmanned flights are the best way to discover the beauty of our cosmic neighbourhoodby Philip Ball / July 23, 2015 / Leave a comment
As David Cameron discovered on 8th May, success is all the more euphoric when your expectations start low. NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto and Charon (the largest of its five known moons) had been under the scientific radar for most of its nine-year journey to what used to be considered the edge of the solar system. Those who remembered the lonely spacecraft could have been forgiven for secretly thinking it wouldn’t find much of note when it arrived at the dwarf planet. A NASA mission to Pluto was proposed in the 1990s, but was dismissed as too unimportant. Then in 2006, only months after New Horizons set off, Pluto was demoted from planet status by the decision of the International Astronomical Union (IAU). New Horizons could have seemed like a voyage of obligation rather than necessity, filling in the gaps in our understanding of this obscure object, which is smaller than our own moon.
How wrong we were. New Horizon’s Pluto Flyby has easily been the most eye-opening scientific story of the year. The astonished expression of its leader, the planetary scientist Alan Stern, as the latest images hit the screens of mission control at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, summed up everyone’s fascination as Pluto’s surface came into focus during July. Some scientists had imagined it…