On July 14 (Bastille Day for my colleagues in France), astronomers the world over will be closely watching their computers as NASA's New Horizons Pluto-Kuiper Belt Mission probe will come within "approach" distance and fly by the dwarf planet Pluto and its largest moon, Charon. Launched in 2006 the New Horizons mission aims to provide valuable information about the icy worlds at the edge of our solar system as well as important clues about the chemical makeup of all the planets, including Earth. Already more than 300 scientific papers have been published in the past decade, revealing early insights about this mission.
According to a NASA news release, it is theorized that Pluto's atmosphere of nitrogen, complex seasons, and distinct surface markings and an ice-rock interior may harbor an ocean. The New Horizons suite of instruments which includes cameras, spectrometers, and plasma and dust detectors, will map the geology of Pluto and Charon, their surface compositions and temperatures, examine Pluto's atmosphere, search for an atmosphere around Charon, study Pluto's smaller satellites, and look for rings and additional satellites.
Some of the discoveries about Pluto's moons have come from the Hubble telescope, itself celebrating a milestone anniversary this year. But the New Horizons probe will be the first spacecraft to closely explore the surface of the planet, which is located in an area of the outer solar system known as the Kuiper Belt. The probe will not stop at Pluto but will use its gravitational pull as a boost that will put it on a track to encounter an object known as PT1 before continuing its journey into deep space in 2019. It's one of several solar system missions in the past 50 years that began with explorations of Venus and Mars in the early 1960s and later missions to Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, all designed to facilitate a greater understanding of our own solar system and its place in the universe at large.
The analysis of deep space exploration data will take many years, but there is no doubt that the technology and science research from such missions have yielded important foundational knowledge for the development of thousands of products we take for granted that have generated tens of thousands of jobs worth billions of dollars. These include such widely disparate items as mobile phones, satellite communications, laptops, medical diagnostic imaging and non-stick frying plans, to name a few.
Less acknowledged to the accomplishment of space exploration and the residual technological advancements is the role of scientific publishing. All discovery is based on what has gone before and the collaborative networks of scientists the world over. Astronomy is a particularly interesting field of science because of its cross-disciplinary nature and possibly the only scientific field that relies as much on amateur enthusiasts as professionals. Millions of sky-watchers worldwide connect through organizations and social networks to share their discoveries with like-minded colleagues in a community of amateur astronomers.
The recent story about a patent lawyer named Wayne Jaeschke who spotted what appeared to be a dust cloud coming from the surface of Mars is a classic example. He is one of five co-authors of a scientific paper investigating the nature of the Mars plumes. Jaeschke's discovery and its resulting paper demonstrate the importance of the scientific publishing process to the advancement of science. The very expanse of the universe makes it impossible for professional scientists to be able to study all its aspects all of the time. As a result, the contributions and enthusiasm of the Wayne Jaeschkes of this world are inherently valuable to astronomy and the published works that advance the field.
Since 2006, the New Horizons project alone has inspired a high volume of academic research. A recent report published by Mendeley provides a picture of the scientific output since the New Horizons mission was approved. Of particular note are the contributions of female scientists to the body of work around the mission. Of the top 10 contributors, four are women, a significant representation in any of the STEM disciplines, where female representation is usually less than 30 percent. They are Dr. Leslie Young of the Southwest Research Institute (SWRI), Dr. Yanping Guo of the John Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, and Dr. Fran Bagenal and Dr. Cathy Olkin of the University of Colorado Boulder.
It's interesting to note that the New Horizons probe will leave our solar system for deep space in 2019, almost 50 years to the day after mankind first set foot on a heavenly body other than our own Earth. We may not know for many years what it will find. But we do know that the published works resulting from its discoveries will help us find our own place in the universe and perhaps an answer to that age old question: "Why are we here?"
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