We humans are endowed with more than simple curiosity. We have a burning desire to know true wonder and awe and then to understand. From earliest humankind wondering where the sun and moon went for long periods to rovers crossing Mars, we’ve sought to understand our universe and unlock some of its mysteries. That same universe humbles me each day, sometimes in small ways and other times profoundly.
Having grown-up on Apollo, space and its possibilities has long fascinated me and knowledge alone is reason enough to explore. Though no other worlds in our solar system will sustain human life without aid, what we learn expands possibilities and may teach us how to save this planet.
Currently, the Dawn spacecraft is circling the dwarf planet Ceres in the asteroid belt where shining white spots continue to fascinate and baffle. On June 30th Dawn initiated a slow descent towards a closer orbit that will help provide more answers. Is it ice despite the relatively close proximity to the sun? Salt? Both? Something else? Dawn will reach that closer orbit in August.
On July 14th the New Horizons spacecraft will perform a flyby at Pluto. Yes, Pluto! This won’t, and cannot, happen again in our lifetimes because of Pluto’s orbit. Already Pluto is large enough for New Horizons to make out features like the four dark spots that are uniform in size and evenly spaced (obvious in the right hand Pluto image provided here). Too, the reddish planet contrasts with its gray moon, Charon. Charon is approximately 50% of Pluto’s size causing a tug on both and resulting in waltz-like orbits. After Pluto, New Horizons will continue into the Kuiper Belt, for NASA has discovered there’s more solar system beyond Pluto.
On June 30th I ventured forth after sunset to view the alignment of Venus and Jupiter and took my camera along thinking to have bragging rights to an image of two star-sized dots. I came away with far more.
The two planets slowly appearing above the sunset took my breath away and rendered me speechless. Though I was seeing two worlds side-by-side, they were situated thus only because of my perspective. They were bright beyond what I’d hoped and growing brighter with each moment the Earth rotated me away from the sun. While I waited for my attempted close-up, and without giving the act a thought, I turned around and there was the moon.
My jaw sagged as I stared at our lone moon still two days from full. Bright. Glowing. It’s features visible to the naked eye.
Minutes later I spun back around, increased my relatively inexpensive camera to maximum zoom and was rewarded with two distinctly world-like orbs, closer and brighter Venus and the far more distant Jupiter. In that moment my mind spanned the distance and it was as if I was truly exploring. I thought of all the moons around Jupiter like Ganymede and Europa and the images other craft have beamed back to us.
What an evening!
Is America destined to be the nation of Apollo and increasingly shrinking projects? Are our best and brightest destined to go elsewhere to explore the heavens and help solve this world’s problems? For the US, what lies beyond this present age? Will we build upon success and continue to forge exploration partnerships with other nations?
I was born at the dawn of space exploration and sat rapt after midnight as the first men stepped upon the moon. Some have died in the quest for knowledge and have done so willingly, for they knew the risks. Space exploration isn’t our only quest, nor should it be, for there are other aspects of the human condition that need addressed, but it ought to be in the mix. Beyond the Earth is knowledge we seek and answers for which we don’t yet have the questions.