To Boldly Go….Remotely

When it comes to space travel, both real and imagined, all the attention tends to focus on human expeditions. We see ourselves in a snazzy space suit, preferably with a laser blaster at our side, exploring and colonizing the moon, the planets, and the galaxies beyond. In reality, except for a brief foray to the moon, we haven’t gotten very far. Robots, on the other hand, have been tooling around the solar system and beyond for many years now, dutifully beaming back invaluable information and images for us to enjoy.

A current and spectacular example of robotic exploration is the Cassini mission to Saturn. Cassini has started the final phase of its almost 20 year mission, which has been dubbed ‘the grand finale.’ The probe will be doing a series of tight orbits of Saturn, being the first probe to go between the famous rings of Saturn and the planet proper before ‘completing’ its mission by plunging directly into the planet itself. I was hoping Cassini would be getting a nice retirement, maybe to a farm upstate somewhere, instead of a fiery death, but science is not big on sentimentality, alas.

After gorging yourself on Cassini information, you might want to take a step back and explore the other missions, the importance, and the history of robotic space exploration. The library, as always, has your back. Here are a few resources to get you started on your journey to the final frontier.

Dreams of Other Worlds: the Amazing Story of Unmanned Space Exploration by Chris Impey and Holly Henry
The number of robotic missions in the past 40 plus years makes for quite a long list. Thankfully the authors of this excellent work don’t simply try to run down that list in telling the tale of unmanned space exploration. Instead, they focus on a few key missions and their importance. The Viking and ongoing MER (Mars Exploration Rover) missions to Mars are each given a chapter as well as the Stardust mission to collect samples from a comet. The less glamorous but scientifically invaluable space telescopes Spitzer, Chandra and Hubble are also covered. Throughout the authors impart a sense of wonder and demonstrate the way these missions continue to change our view of the universe and our place in it.

Red Rover: Inside the Story of Robotic Space Exploration, from Genesis to the Mars Curiosity Rover by Roger Wiens
While the incredible results of robotic missions are rightfully lauded to the skies, the actual nuts and bolts of getting the mechanics to work and the mission to succeed are often glossed over. Red Rover is a great corrective, with the author giving you a fascinating behind the scenes view of several missions that he has worked on. With the shift away from manned missions beginning in the 1990s, primarily due to cost, robotic missions had to be nimbler and rely on more creative engineering to get off the ground. Wien’s experience demonstrates the triumphs and failures of this endeavor and the general DIY spirit of the teams themselves. If this book piques your interest about the Mars Curiosity Rover, definitely check out some of the other works the library has on the mission.

One of the oldest, launched in 1977 no less, but still ongoing robotic mission is the Voyager program. Currently the Voyager 1 & 2 probes are hurtling through the heliosphere in interstellar space sending back invaluable data and pushing the boundaries of human exploration. For a rundown of the mission itself and the team that continues to work on it, take a look at The Interstellar Age: Inside the Forty-Year Mission by Jim Bell. For a wider view of the mission and how it fits into humanity’s continual quest for discovery definitely check out Voyager: Seeking Newer Worlds in the Third Great Age of Discovery by Stephen Pyne. If you are more visually inclined, take a look at the DVD produced by the BBC titled Voyager: to the Final Frontier. One of the most intriguing aspects of the Voyager mission is the message that was put in it to be discovered  by any extraterrestrial life that might happen upon it. The contents of that gold-coated copper phonograph, it was the 70s after all, can be found in Murmurs of Earth: The Voyager Interstellar Record put together by the people who selected the items meant to represent us, including Carl Sagan.

While it is a bummer that most of us will not be heading to the stars anytime soon, it is a great time to enjoy all the great discoveries and images that our robotic proxies are beaming back to Earth. Plus it’s nice not to die of radiation poisoning. Just saying.

Pluto and Beyond!

Mission-PathtoPluto-MissionTimeline-TenYears

Do you remember where you were on January 19th, 2006 at 14:00 EST? Unless you have an extremely detailed journaling addiction, I’m guessing you don’t. If you have a fondness for a certain celestial object, however, you just might. You see, on that fateful day the New Horizons probe launched on a journey to Pluto and the mysterious Kuiper Belt. If you have been following New Horizon’s progress through the solar system, complete with a gravity assist from Jupiter, you are in for a treat. In an epic case of delayed gratification, New Horizons is finally going to make its close encounter with Pluto, plus its five moons, in just a few days on July 14th.

plutofocusWhy is this exciting you ask? Well beyond satisfying the innate human desire to explore strange new worlds, the encounter with Pluto is epic because we know so little about it. Discovered in 1930 and billions of miles from Earth, Pluto is essentially a blank spot in our knowledge. As Pluto comes into focus, everything we learn is brand new. Even better, once New Horizons passes Pluto, it will go on to other objects in the Kuiper Belt and the Oort Cloud while exploring the icy ‘third zone’ of our solar system. To be honest, I’m not totally sure what many of those terms mean, but I love it when actual science starts sounding like an episode of Star Trek. Fingers crossed that we can start talking about the Delta Quadrant and the Delphic Expanse soon.

The one disadvantage to all this newness is trying to find current information on Pluto in book form. The library does have some great books on Pluto, but they are a little dated. This isn’t because we aren’t buying new books on the topic; it’s just that they haven’t been written yet. Once New Horizons sends back its data, new books are sure to appear on our shelves. Until then, you will have better luck using our magazine resources to find the latest articles about Pluto and New Horizons.  Our two major magazine databases are EBSCO and Proquest which are easy to search and include many science-related journals. You will also want to check out our new digital magazine services, Flipster and Zino, which have full issues of several science and technology magazines.

plutoOf course, for immediacy it is hard to beat the Internet. Luckily, there are plenty of great sites to keep you up to date on New Horizons and its discoveries. There are two major websites for the New Horizons Mission. One is based at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory and the other is based at NASA.  Both are chock full of current information, including the latest data, photos and timeline for the mission as well as a spiffy countdown clock to the closest approach.  If you feel like getting social there are Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube accounts and even a Pluto Time feature where you can share photos of the exact brief time on earth when the sunlight matches that on Pluto at high noon. Also, be sure to hang on to all those web and social media links beyond the July 14th fly by. New Horizons is way out there, with data taking a long time to get back to Earth, so new information should be coming in months after the initial encounter.

So take a little time this July 14th to think of distant Pluto and all of the brand spanking new information we will finally be getting about the formerly mysterious Planet X. Go, New Horizons, Go!

Planet X

Credit: NASA, ESA and G. Bacon (STScI)

Planet, dwarf planet, and Kuiper belt object. These are just a few of the labels attached to that icy sphere at the end our solar system named Pluto. I must admit my favorite, a name Pluto held before its discovery in 1930, is Planet X. The name Planet X gives Pluto the proper sense of the unknown. 

Mystery is the key when it comes to Pluto because what we don’t know is immense. A short summary will easily give you all the facts that science has been able to find out to date. Science is only part of the story, however. When Pluto was demoted to the status of dwarf planet in 2006 a huge outpouring of anger and emotion erupted among the public. It seems that icy Pluto has a lot of friends.

There are two great new books about Pluto that will initiate you into the controversy of just what to call the “object”.

The first is The Pluto Files: the Rise and Fall of America’s Favorite Planet by Neil deGrasse Tyson. Tyson, who is the director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History, humorously chronicles the saga of Pluto’s demotion to Dwarf Planet status. The book is worth reading alone for the examples of grade school hate mail Tyson received when he took Pluto off the list of official planets at the museum.

The Case for Pluto by Alan Boyle tries to put a more positive spin on Pluto’s reclassification.  Boyle argues that Pluto is the first of a new class of planets which, while never being part of the official eight planets, will usher in a new era of discovery. A bit of a sugar coating perhaps, but there actually is a lot to look forward to.

For the first time in the history of our planet, a spacecraft is on its way to Pluto. The New Horizons probe launched in 2006 and is set to explore Pluto, Charon and other objects beyond. New Horizons has reached the halfway point of its trip and is scheduled to meet up with Pluto in July of 2015.  It has already sent back great pictures of Jupiter as it cruised on past.

I know five years might be considered a long time to wait for results, but why not spend it contemplating what might be found. Personally I’m hoping for the discovery of Ripley’s frozen escape ship from the Nostromo or perhaps a rebel base under attack from AT-AT walkers. Not likely, perhaps, but at this point it can’t be disproved.  There are advantages to being the unknown Planet X.

Richard