Thursday, August 27, 2020

My Trip to the Stars

I have been traveling quite a bit over the past few weeks. In fact, I have never been as far away before. It all started with an innocent trip through the first few chapters of a book called ‘A Short History of Nearly Everything’ by Bill Bryson. I resigned myself to spend my evenings with a 600 page popular science companion instead of watching the boob tube, but I never made it to the last stop. I got stuck in the first few chapter of the book, where the author writes about Space.

The problem with reading about a subject you know nothing about, is that there are so many hurdles. I kept stubbing my toes against a new concept in just about every other sentence. I had to take detours to visit Wikipedia, which led me to You tube, which led me to an inventor’s site and so on. As you can imagine, I got completely lost on the back roads of my trip and I didn’t even have a GPS with me. It took mother nature to help me find my way back. There was this big storm that zapped my router and I was staring at black nothingness. No, it wasn’t interstellar space, it was my computer’s black screen.

But I was hooked. As soon as I rebooted, I found myself back in Youtube land, gorging on videos about space until my head started to spin.

I knew of course that space is BIG, but on this trip I realized how incomprehensibly big it is. Even physicists have a hard time coming up with new units of measurement to describe the incredible distances out there. The measly Astronomical Unit (AU: 92,955,000 miles), or even the light year (5,878,625,400,000 miles) fall short of measuring intergalactic space. We now have the parsec (3.27 light years), the kiloparsec (1000 parsecs) and megaparsec (1 million parsecs). The center of our galaxy, for example, is about 8 kiloparsecs away, which equals 8,000 parsecs, or 26,160 light years. Adding all the required zeros to convert it to an earthly measurement, only makes it more incomprehensible.

Not only are distances mind blowingly large, but the stuff in space, the stuff we are exploring, is by far the exception rather than the rule. That is why I am in such awe of what scientists have discovered. Looking for stuff and sending a probe to observe it, is like finding a pebble in the Pacific Ocean, sending a diver into shark infested waters and expect him to faithfully come back with important information without being shredded to pieces.

Take Pluto, for instance. It took the New Horizons space probe 9 years to reach this dwarf planet, which is smaller than our moon. It is inside the Kuiper Belt, a doughnut shaped region beyond Neptune. Pluto is a mere 3.67 billion miles from the sun, which is 40 times further than the earth!

I cannot decide which is more fascinating: the images that the probe sent back, or the probe itself. It was launched in 2006 and on its way to Pluto, New Horizons was put to sleep, to save energy, but not before it did a few gymnastics tricks called ‘gravitational slingshots’. Those are ingenious maneuvers to increase a space probe’s speed. The probe gets as close to the planet as possible without being sucked in and by using a planet’s orbital speed, it catapults away from it. It shaved 3 years off of New Horizons’ travel time.

On July 14, 2015 New Horizons started its flyby of Pluto and began sending back incredible images of this icy planet. A spacecraft the size of a piano suddenly opens the door onto a world that no one has ever seen before. And what a world. Pluto has a pulsing, icy glacier in the shape of a heart the size of Texas. It has mountains made of ice water as high as the Rockies and it probably has an underground lake, hidden under its frozen crust. And that’s just the icing on the cake.

And here I was, thinking that the solar system is just a few planets circling around a fireball. It is far far bigger than I thought. Pluto was unceremoniously kicked out of the old boys’ planets club in 2006 and demoted to a dwarf planet, but the flyby started a hunt for many other little guys out there. Sedna, for instance, another dwarf planet not much bigger than an average size mountain, is even more distant.

It is so far away that it takes Sedna 11,000 years to go around the sun. It is elliptical in its orbit, which means that it spends most of those 11,000 years in the Oort Cloud, a big bubble that encapsulates the entire solar system, Kuiper belt included. The last time Sedna was closest to the sun humans were still hunter/gatherers. Space probes have been used since the Space Race began between the USSR and the US during the Cold War. Who knows how many there are out there by now. And what happens to the ones that are ‘decommissioned’? After years of faithful service, they are turned off and left to their own devices.

If they are lucky, they suffer a short and quick death when they get pulled back into earth’s orbit and burn up, others sometimes crash on other worlds. But the loneliest of ends is reserved for the probes like the New Horizons and the Voyagers 1 and 2 , which quietly, without complaint, recede into the universe, never to be heard from again.

I got a lump in my throat when I watched an animation of the Cassini spacecraft’s last act. It was launched in 1997, faithfully travelled across space for 7 years and orbited Saturn for another 13 long years. As a grand finale it made 22 dives between Saturn and its rings. On its final orbit, when it ran out of fuel, it sacrificed itself, like a Kamakaze pilot, by plunging through Saturn’s atmosphere, burning up like a shooting star across Saturn’s sky, in a last effort to gather scientific information for the good of humanity.

My grandson asked me the other day how long it would take to get to Pluto. So I told him, that if he could hitch a ride on a light beam, it would take him 5 ½ hours. If he traveled in a rocket, it would take him 16 ½ years. He would leave as an 8 year old boy and arrive as a grown man, beard and all. But if he took a jet airplane, the one he takes to visit his grandmother on the other side of the country, it would take him 690 years. The problem would be that the plane would be full of dead people by the time it arrives on Pluto. So I told him that maybe traveling to the moon would be a safer bet. It would only take him 16 days on a jet, 9 ½ on a rocket and 1.2 seconds on a light beam.

If you decide that the information contained in this post makes your hair stand on end due to inaccuracies or other peccadillos and you feel an urge to mail me, my address is:

Madeleine Kando, insignificant street address, USA, Earth, the Solar System, Port Cloud, Local Fluff, Local Bubble, Orion Arm, Milky Way Galaxy, Local Group, Virgo Super cluster, Laniakea Super cluster, Universe. leave comment here