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Snowstorms in Ohio and Pluto Remorse


When it comes to space exploration, you kind of expect certain things to occur.  New views of ancient and untouched surfaces, better understanding of atmospheres, a moon or two, perhaps finding water or ice where you didn't expect it.  When you go somewhere new, you know that you'll come across something that you hadn't seen before and this was illustrated to me in 1973 and remains a vivid memory of mine. We were on our way to Florida from our home in Oakville, Ontario during spring break.  I was in grade 3 and had expressed to my teacher, Mrs. Dolby, that if my dad could save up $500, we would be driving all the way to Disneyworld for a two week family vacation.  To me that sounded like an insurmountable amount of money, but somehow I guess we scraped together enough to make the trip.  And it wasn't long before the "discoveries" began. I believe it was our second day and we had crossed into the US at Detroit, Michigan.  We made our way through Toledo, Ohio (have you ever been to Toledo? Not very memorable) and we ran into a massive snow storm (talk about discovery of ice where we didn't expect it).  So in the name of safety, my parents decided to make the travel day a little shorter and we pulled off the I-75 in a small town named Wapakoneta, Ohio.  I'm sure we didn't know it at the time, but this is the home town of Neil Armstrong!  What a discovery!!  Of course, we ended up at the small museum devoted to Neil, here just about 4 years since his famous moon landing had occurred. And there was something that resonated with me as a small boy, that this had to be the most amazing thing I had ever seen!  Rockets, spacesuits, huge balls of fire blasting out the back of this gigantic rocket (the Saturn V was 360 feet tall!), going to faraway places.  This was a real life Billy Blastoff, which was a toy I remember playing with when I was even younger. That experience has stuck with me all these years.  Space and space travel was forever the most interesting thing that I would ever learn and remains that way to this day.  Of course, when we got to Florida, we ended up at Cape Canaveral and we saw the massive Vehicle Assembly Building and the rocket transport vehicle that carries these monstrosities to the launch pad.  Nothing, then, since, now or ever had such a powerful affect on my academic, imaginative, curious, inquisitive self.  I wish that everyone could have an experience with something like this. But wait, maybe there is something that could serve this purpose.  And it may be Pluto.  What makes these events so special, is it puts space on the headlines of the "everyone's" book, the newspaper.  It's discussed on the news and for a while, everyone is looking at (in this case), Pluto.  But now that New Horizons has buzzed past Pluto and is on it's way through the Kuiper Belt (the doughnut shaped region of our solar system that contains Pluto and millions of other icy bodies, asteroids and may extend enormous distances beyond Pluto), I can't believe that there are people talking about how they have some sort of Pluto hangover.  Since Pluto was the last of the original planets to be explored in detail, I've seen on Twitter people saying how there really isn't anything else to get excited about.  All I can say about that is, you ain't seen nothing yet. I would compare this to my experience in Ohio back in '73.  I had discovered something new about space but I certainly didn't think that I had seen it all.  It whet my appetite to know more and more and I haven't stopped since.  And when the astronauts of Apollo 11 set foot on the Moon in July of 1969 (we're coming up to the 46th anniversary of that event), exploration of space was now part of the way we humans operate. A quick rundown of some planet knowledge we have gained, in chronological order, since Neil and the boys went to the Moon:Venus may be similar in size to Earth but the average temperature is 500 degrees Celsius, the atmospheric pressure is 100 times greater than Earth's and the precipitation is constant AND ITS SULPHURIC ACID!!  Not a place we will send astronauts to (nor likely robots, although the Russians did so in the 70s.  It didn't work for very long, not surprisingly) anytime soon.Mars, once thought to have canals channeling water from its poles to its dying inhabitants along the equator, does not have life, is bone dry except for large quantities of underground frozen water, has no magnetic field and an atmosphere so thin that Arnold Schwarzenegger's face would explode if exposed to it (the movie Total Recall?).  Today it's the likeliest destination for humanity but living there will be tough since it won't sustain vegetation (food), it's darn cold and there's no flowing water (although there is evidence that there may have been).  You can get there in about 8 months, but coming back to Earth may not be an option.Uranus and Neptune are the gas giants out beyond Saturn and were flown by and observed by the cameras of Voyager 2 in the late 80s.  Although there are some oddities such as the barrel roll style of rotation of Uranus and the massive storm that rages on Neptune, these planets are not in my opinion anything that a space agency is going to commit billions to explore.  We know enough about them to know that there are bigger fish to fry.The Galileo spacecraft orbited Jupiter and its moons for several years in the 90s up to 2003. We now know several things about Jupiter's massive size that generates more heat than it absorbs, it's incredibly strong magnetic field and the way it's atmosphere broils and churns.  The most massive planet with more than double Earth's gravity and yet rotates on it's axis in under 11 hours (compared to Earth's 24 hour rotation!)  But Jupiter's moons are most intriguing with Io being the most volcanically active in the whole solar system.  More intriguing though is Europa which we now know has a massive salt water ocean beneath a thick layer of ice.  And where there is liquid water, there is the possibility of life.  Expect that Europa will be a destination in the near future.Saturn was explored by the Cassini spacecraft through the early 2000s and most significant was the discovery of oceans of liquid methane on the moon named Titan (methane is a light fuel here on Earth but in liquid form on Titan because of the cold temperatures).  Methane is a hydrocarbon and these are the molecules of life.  We have now discovered that hydrocarbons are in abundance throughout the solar system so could this be tied to the origin of life?  The research continues.After a 7 year journey, necessary to catch up to the speedy Mercury, Messenger the spacecraft finally arrived in 2011 to orbit this tiny rock closest to the Sun.  Here more water was found at the Mercurial poles and the entire surface was mapped for the first time.  Mercury is very hard to observe because from Earth, it always appears very close to the Sun.  And the Sun is bright!And now this week Pluto.  Well, I guess the era of discovery is over, right?  WRONG!!  We now have five spacecraft hurtling into interstellar (between stars) space.  Where will they end up?  Well Voyager 1 is on course to pass another star in about 40,000 years.  Voyager 2 is travelling at 68,000 km/h, the fastest manmade object and is now over 100 times further away from the Sun than Earth is.  That's over 15,000 million kms and incredibly it is still broadcasting back to Earth on the last bits of energy it gets from its nuclear power source (at that distance, solar power would be ineffective).  And don't forget, it is doing so with technology built in the 1970s, around the time that I was in Wapakoneta!  Did you ever see a computer from the 1970s??  Would you expect it to work in the vacuum of space and a temperature of -240 degrees?  The one NASA built does! I hope these people with their Pluto remorse get over it.  We have just emerged from the cradle and are just taking our first baby steps into space.  And I have no doubt that the space industry won't have any problem at all maintaining the enthusiasm to explore.  The excitement can be kept alive by taking 8 year old kids to see their first rocket and meet their first astronaut.

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