Thoughts on New Horizons to Pluto

The New Horizons is a probe on its way to Pluto due to arrive about a year from now.   The launch was 8 years ago and with only modest publicity.   Given its current location and status, there isn’t much reason to pay attention to it.    It has my attention, for some reason.

Of all the deep space projects, this one seems unusual.    I don’t doubt there is some science to be gained by the project and I’m looking forward to learning whatever they discover.   But, my interest in this mission is different from other planetary missions such as the various missions to the other planets.

First of all, I don’t understand why this is an interesting mission worth the effort in the first place.    I read about the scientific goals but I don’t see them as especially compelling.   It’s great that the mission is on going.  I just don’t understand why it was worth the effort to start in the first place.

No matter what the official justification, I am happy it was approved and is so far successful.   I think the mission will find something surprising, or at least that’s my hope.   Even if the mission is dull, a few closeup pictures of this body would be nice.   I can’t justify the project just to collect such pictures, but since it is on its way I’m looking forward to seeing whatever comes back.

I guess part of that interest is one of those success stories that would just be nice to add to the history books.   Less than 100 years after discovery at a distance considered to be outer edge of the solar system, we sent a probe for a close flyby.   That’s a human achievement that is on par with the Egyptian pyramids.   The reason for the achievement matters less than the achievement itself.

Another cause for interest is the body’s demotion from being defined as planet.   It would be nice to see some features that are more planet-like than moon-like.    There is a chance that it could reopen that debate if the images show that even though it is not a planet, it looks like one and it behaves like one.    I doubt that will happen.  I’m just presenting this as another reason for my personal interest.

I think a stronger reason for my interest is my own growing interest in curiosity of the solar system beyond Pluto.   I’m especially interested in the extreme edge of the hypothesized Oort cloud that this mission will come no where close to approaching, but its visit to the edge of the Kuiper belt could provide some interesting hints.  The New Horizons web site describes the bodies at this distance to be relics left over from the formation of the solar system.  This makes the project like an archaeological dig to find something about a distant past.    I suppose that is interesting and that maybe this will return some unexpected information to cause us to revise the current theories of solar-system origins.   I’m more interested to see if there is any evidence of more recent evolution.   The outer solar system is more dynamic than we expect.    Our proximity to the Sun biases us to assume that the Sun is necessary for dynamic processes.   It would be interesting to find dynamic processes occurring so remotely, and perhaps not easily explained by internal heat or tidal forces.

I can summarize all of the above as an interest in the actual encounter and whatever information is returned.   I don’t think that describes the bulk of my fascination of this particular mission.   I’m not expecting any major discovery at all.   I’m expecting just a few pictures and some data points that will be lost in some academic papers.   Even if there is a newsworthy discovery, that doesn’t explain my fascination with this mission.     It is hard to imagine getting too interested in Pluto.

I’m much more fascinated by the timeline of this mission.   It is a mission that will be most interesting for about one 24 hour period after a 10 year wait and even that was preceded by years of preparing for the mission.    On top of the brief flyby opportunity, the probe has limited sensory and communication capabilities.     I’m impressed with the capability it does have, but for a mission that takes so long and for a flyby so short, it just seems short on capability.    For a short flyby, it would be great to have as many capabilities as possible, or for a minimal capability it would have been great if the probe could linger longer than the few hours flying by.

However, now I’m not talking about the scientific mission.   Instead, I’m talking about the scientists and engineers.   Here is a project I’m sure the original team looks forward with great anticipation but this is a good chunk of their life to wait for this brief encounter.    I don’t know anything about the individuals on the team, but I suspect nearly all of them will be working on very different projects in the mean time.   Several of them may be going through career changes or even leaving the project out of necessity of doing something productive or rewarding in the interim.    When the encounter does occur, there will be many who will participate in the project who were not participants in the beginning.

I’m fascinated about this social aspect of such a mission that takes 10 years where there is virtually nothing to do with the mission for nearly all of those 10 years.    The scientific aspect of this mission is an unusual undertaking.

There are many other projects that require similar periods of waiting.   An example comes to mind is the many years required to get an orchard started to get productive.   But most of these projects involve some kind of work to keep the original team busy during the interim.    In contrast, this mission offers virtually nothing to do for years at a time.

This says something about being human.   The fact that we don’t just forget about this mission, like writing a message and sealing it in a bottle and tossing it into the sea.   The project is interesting and we hope someday someone may read it.   We may spend a few days thinking about this but eventually we’ll completely forget about it.   If reminded, we may relive that original interest, but we forget because the continuation of that project requires zero attention on our part and there are many other things that demand our attention instead.    Something like this is happening with the team who initiated the New Horizons mission.

There is an institutional reason why the mission will not be forgotten.   It has some level of funding and it remains on the books in terms of future scheduling and so on.   It is not likely to be forgotten institutionally.    But on an individual level, what is the motivation to stay interested for such a long uneventful wait?    I had zero involvement in the project so I don’t know anything about the continued interest of the original scientists and engineers.    However, I do have the example of myself who has zero investment in the project and yet remain interested in a mission that offers nothing of interest until at least another year.

I think back about my own history of past projects.    For example, I’m sure the first project of my career 30 years ago is still going on in some recognizable form today.   I’m still curious about that project, but it is of a specialized nature that it became inaccessible after I left that job.    The only way to keep in touch with such projects is to stay somehow connected to the same industry to provide the opportunity to see its progress.    Despite the lack of information, I am still interested in it enough so that I regret being so cut off from it.   This sense of missing a completely disconnected project is curious.   I’m not saying that I wish that was still my job to be involved in the project.  I still feel some lack of not having some continued connection with that project despite decades of no access.

Several other projects certainly have reached their end of life.   The motivations for those projects remain today and I am similarly frustrated at no longer having access to updates about the broader progress of those groups.

I suspect there are more than a few people involved in the New Horizons project who are working in completely different industries with no longer any inside access to the project.   They are at least lucky to have a relatively well publicized project that no doubt offers some opportunities for them to keep close in touch if they wanted to.     Many other projects are not so well publicized or accessible.   In most cases, continued access to the project requires continued employment in that project or at least employment in the organizations that manage the projects.

Leaving a project’s organization shuts off the access to updates about the project.    I see an analogy to that kind of shut-out with the ten-year uneventful waiting for the New Horizons mission.    The lesson is that we don’t forget about the project even if we are otherwise occupied.

At the risk of invoking Marxist imagery, there is an element of alienation going on.   It is human nature to become attached to ones work.   Even though I am no longer employed to work on previous projects, the past projects remain a part of me and I think a part of me remain in the projects.  Sometimes the latter is literally true as I learned one time when someone contacted me after finding my initials in source code for project I left ten years earlier.  I was no longer involved on that project so I couldn’t help but that didn’t stop me from wanting to help.   Although it is a fact of modern work arrangements that an employer has exclusive ownership of a project built by its employees, it is still an element of human nature to remain emotionally attached to such projects.

I’m not sure I can imagine a non-human natural analog to such an emotional attachment to such a long term inanimate project.  But I’m sure there are some out there because nature keeps surprising us that way.   In humans, is an emotional commitment at a more primitive level than what we normally associate as uniquely human.    Perhaps it would be interesting to seek out such examples elsewhere in nature.  I just note it is reality for humans.

A final observation is one that ties back to my thinking on distinguishing sciences into present-tense and past-tense sciences.   I described the distinction where present-tense science is focused on documentation and control to operate systems or experiments.  It is present-tense science that is interested in the continued progress of the New Horizon mission.  Also, it was the present-tense science that planned and executed the mission the first place.   What makes this example interesting is how long this project lasts.    The present tense science confidently planned out a 10 year experiment and continues to manage it.   So far, it looks like the mission is going to be successful.   This remarkable given the involved distances, time duration, and target size.    They remain confident the mission will succeed.

In contrast, there is the past-tense science.   While in my formulation, the past-tense science is the source of the theories that make this project possible, I want to focus on the project itself as a topic of historical analysis.    There is a historical record about the origin of the project.   That origin was of distant enough time to be interesting as historical investigation.

One thing in particular that comes to mind is that ten years ago there was a sufficient interest in this project to make it reality.   That was a different time.   It is doubtful if an identical opportunity presented today would be approved and executed.  Studying the project, the people involved at the time, and the political and social environment at the time can tell us something about how much has changed since then.   The final destination is another year away.  There is still time for everyone to completely forget this mission entirely.   If that happens, we can observe the difference of just 10 years about what we consider to be interesting.

At a deeper level, I find it interesting that the ongoing mission is evidence that that prior time had the confidence to set this project in motion.   One may dismiss this as the fact it was only about 10 years ago, but that starts to become long enough ago to question the capacities of that earlier group.   Many technology careers have complete staff turn over in ten year cycles so there is significant number of newer generation involved today.   The start of the project is now distant enough to be considered historical.   This is further emphasized by the uneventful interim period.   The evidence of the ongoing mission is somehow evidence of the skills and capabilities of an earlier time.

Next year when the flyby occurs, both types of sciences will unfold.   The present-tense science will finally return the information we have been patiently waiting for all this time.   The past-tense science will inform us how an earlier generation had the foresight to plan and execute this project.    Maybe there will be some exciting discovery to draw our attention to this particular project.

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One thought on “Thoughts on New Horizons to Pluto

  1. Pingback: We live in the wake of the big bang that hasn’t happened yet | kenneumeister

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