Looking Up: Curiosity keeps us looking

Peter Becker More Content Now
Pluto, as it was revealed by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft on July 13, 2015. For more information visit online at http://pluto.jhuapl.edu/ or www.nasa.gov. NASA photograph

The marvelous revelations about Pluto have dazzled all that are interested back here on Earth. The Earth is a fellow world that orbits the sun, so very much closer to the warmth our star brings and allowing us to revolve around in only one span of time we refer to as a year. From our vantage point, Pluto is a barely seen speck of light almost lost in the crowd of background stars. Pluto is so far out its year is 247.7 times longer.

Earth is only 93 million miles from the sun, give or take. Pluto’s orbit gives it a mean distance of 3 BILLION, 666 million miles. Sunlight is so dim by the time it reaches Pluto, its daylight illumination resembles our twilight. The temperature on Pluto ranges from -387 to -389 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. The coldest place on Earth can reaches only -126 Fahrenheit, which would seem like a heat wave on Pluto.

From our lovely abode, we gaze out with our telescopes and scan the night sky, marveling at what’s out there. We begin with our eyes, as our ancestors did for thousands of years. We don’t know their names but they were first picked out the constellations and were startled by meteors darting by, while pondering the five strange “wandering stars” called planets they could see, and the ever changing phases of the moon.

Their curiosity eventually led to the telescope, which Galileo Galilei in the early 1600s turned to the heavens for study. So small and crude by modern standards, his telescopes opened up a whole new vision of the Universe, a depth never known before.

Curiosity led to more curiosity. What more could be out there? How do all the parts interact and what is our world’s place and role in the scheme of things? Could there be other worlds teaming with life as ours?

Uranus was the first planet discovered since mankind first looked at the stars and noticed the “classic five,” eventually naming them Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. Earth of course was finally included as the realization grew that we have been sitting on one of the planets all along, looking out.

William Herschel, a British astronomer, found Uranus quite by accident in his great telescope on March 13, 1781. Uranus actually is visible to the unaided eyes but was never noticed because of its faintness and extreme slowness of its orbit.

Our curiosity was excited. With a whole new world to see and contemplate, study of Uranus’ motion led to the conclusion that there must be another large world even further beyond, tugging on its orbit. On Sept. 23, 1846, Neptune was found not by accident but by systematic search. Neptune’s discovery is credited to both French astronomer Urban Le Verrier and German astronomer Johann Galle.

Amazingly, examination of Galileo’s star maps showed that he had actually seen Neptune with his telescope, and plotted it as a dim star without realizing it’s significance.

Could there be yet more? Suggestions that Neptune was also being pulled by the gravitational attraction of an unknown source heightened our curiosity again. Astronomer Percival Lowell led this search back in 1906.

Finally, on Feb. 18, 1930, American astronomer Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto as a dim point of light that was seen as moving when comparing photographic plates he had taken by telescope. It turns out the perceived perturbations on Neptune’s orbit were incorrect, and Pluto was both too small to have such an effect. The search, however, led to the discovery of this distant, mysterious world.

Telescopes, however, could not satisfy our never ending curiosity. We had to actually GO there.

The Space Age was born, and our first (unmanned) visit to Pluto (now known as a “dwarf planet’) took place on July 14, 2015 as NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft rushed by. It took the probe over nine years to cross the solar system to reach that distant speck of light.

Its huge amount of data is still being streamed back to Earth, tantalizing both Mission Specialists and the general public as we see with wonder and awe, mysteries of Pluto unfold only to create more questions.

No longer a faint speck of light to us, Pluto is proving to be a dynamic world, colored red-orange and black, with mountains of ice and strange, nearly flat plains devoid of craters. Most striking visually is a great plain shaped like a Valentine heart.

It must be hard for NASA to know they can’t just take the probe into orbit and see the entire dwarf planet! Just wait. Our curiosity will surely keep us dreaming of adventures yet ahead.

New Horizons will now set its sights on even more distant worlds that have been discovered since Pluto.

With that same curiosity, we head to our backyards and even our windows from a darkened room, and see if the clouds have parted and the stars are twinkling back. It’s the same curiosity our ancestors of ages past first looked up and wondered about the stars and moon and planets.

Full moon is on July 31.

Keep looking up!

Peter W. Becker is managing editor of The News Eagle in Hawley, Pennsylvania, and has been “looking up” since he was a kid. Notes are welcome at news@neagle.com.