I am certain there are whiners out there doubtful of the payoff for this enterprise but I have an answer for them. Things exist in this world where one plants seeds this year and hopes and prays that next year there will be something to eat. It is what we as a species do. Spend energy and time now so that in the future we will be better off. For you grasshoppers out there, start thinking more than two minutes ahead.
Ireland-Online, Pluto mission of discovery blasts off
An unmanned NASA spacecraft the size and shape of a concert piano hurtled yesterday toward Pluto on a three-billion-mile journey to the solar system's last unexplored planet; a voyage so long that some of the scientists who will be celebrating its arrival are just taking their first physics class.
The New Horizons spacecraft blasted off aboard an Atlas V rocket in a spectacular start to the 700-million-dollar mission. Though it is the fastest spacecraft ever launched, capable of reaching 36,000 mph, it will take nine years to reach Pluto and the frozen, sunless reaches of the solar system.
The probe, powered by 24 pounds of plutonium, will not land on Pluto but will photograph it, analyse its atmosphere and send data back across the solar system to Earth.
And if you like trivia:
The Sydney Morning Herald, 21 Jan 2006, Spacecraft heads for Pluto, taking along its discoverer's ashes
THE first space mission to Pluto contains an unusual piece of cargo: ashes from the cremated remains of Clyde Tombaugh, the astronomer who discovered the outermost planet in 1930.
Tombaugh, the only American to find a planet in the solar system, died in 1997, when scientists were still working to win approval and funding for a Pluto mission. His widow, Patricia Tombaugh, 93, and other relatives were present at the launch.
Pluto is the only planet that has not been visited by a spacecraft. In addition, its orbital inclination is much higher than the other planets' and, as I note below, its orbit is highly eccentric. At times it is closer to the Sun than Neptune. One could call this planet an anomaly.
Put all these unusual items together with the fact that the probe is powered by 24 pounds of the eponymous plutonium and I would like to coin the word "eponomaly" to describe this series of unlikely occurrences. It would be like sending a probe powered by Neptunium to Neptune, or by Uranium to Uranus, or if the Mercury Spacecraft crash landed on a Ford Mercury. [To find more words I made up click here]
When I was a child Pluto was the 9th planet in distance from the Sun. Then on January 21, 1979 Neptune became the farthest out until February 11, 1999 when the two switched places. The past few years have been serene and peaceful for me, astronomically speaking, as all is well with the Universe and my cherished beliefs from childhood are once again all in alignment.
If they find a Wal-Mart on Pluto, I will be so mad. There's no stopping these plunderers.
Update - 27 Aug 2006
Sadly, my world has turned topsy-turvy: as I noted above, Pluto stopped being the 9th planet in 1979 - now it has stopped being a planet altogether, see my post Pluto - the Ninth Rock from the Sun.