Incredible Pluto Flyby the End to an Era of Exploration

Because it won’t orbit, it won’t be able to see the whole dwarf planet, only capturing about sixty percent or so of the surface, so some of Pluto will remain a mystery unless and until we send another probe.

It’s several light-hours away from earth, so the initial data won’t arrive until later today.  The data won't even start its journey back to earth until the spacecraft has departed the system because, while it can point at Pluto to take pictures, or point at earth to transmit the data, it can't do both at once. Also, because of the distance from the sun, the only way to power the system was with a nuclear “battery,” and its transmitter has only a few watts of power. So even with the giant dishes of the Deep Space Network at Goldstone in California, and other locations, the data rate will be very slow, and we won’t have all of it for months to come.

What comes next? Well, Eris is almost as large as Pluto and (as noted) different, so it might be an interesting place to visit. Also, because we didn’t see the entire surface, a follow-up visit to Pluto would be necessary to fully map and characterize it. It is headed farther from the sun, and further out of the plane of the ecliptic in which the major planets lie, so it will be getting more difficult to do so with time. But that also means that it will be in a different environment, and it would be of great interest to see what effect the increased distance has on it, in terms of outgassing and composition. With current propulsion technology, the best way to get there remains a gravity assist from Jupiter, an opportunity that occurs once every dozen years or so. The window for one is in fact open right now for a year or so, but that isn’t sufficient time to plan and launch another mission, even if funding were available. The next one will occur in the late 2020s.

But despite the moribund plans of  Congress, with its insistence on wasting money on large, unneeded rockets instead of technology development, even space technology doesn’t stand still. Launch costs are going to continue to drop into the future, and if we get serious about space and sending probes and people out into the solar system, we will be utilizing the resources of the moon and asteroids to further drop the costs of excursions.

Companies like Deep Space Industries, Planetary Resources and Shackleton Energy plan to mine those bodies for propellants in the next decade. If they succeed, cheap propellant commercially available in the earth-moon system will allow us to launch a large enough mission to not just fly by the distant orb, but to orbit it, perhaps even without having to visit and slow down Jupiter.

Regardless, it’s almost certain that we will continue to explore the depths and outer reaches of our solar system (and perhaps, as technology evolves, even other star systems). As Stern said on Monday, “People love turning little dots, little points of light, into planets, and writing new textbooks from scratch."