DeFlip Side #161: Exploring New Horizons

DeFlip Side #161: New Horizons.mp3

Welcome everyone. I’m Christopher DeFilippis and this is DeFlip Side.

And for the Pluto New Horizons Mission, it’s nominal stats across the board.

“Okay. Copy that. We are in lock with telemetry with the spacecraft.”

That was Mission Operations Manager Alice Bowman, and those cheers resonated through NASA’s mission operations center in Maryland earlier this week as she confirmed contact with the New Horizons spacecraft, which had just finished its historic flyby of Pluto and sent word that it had recorded all of its data.

TOP: False-color image of Pluto. BOTTOM: Surface close-up.

TOP: False-color image of Pluto. BOTTOM: Surface close-up.

Thanks to this successful culmination of New Horizons’ 9-1/2-year mission, we now know more about the dwarf planet than any other humans in history—including what it looks like.

The pictures of Pluto are stunning in their detail, revealing a geologically active, vigorously textured world at the outer limits of our solar system, complete with a heart-shaped mass of icy pink and blue terrain, a whale shaped feature dubbed Cthulhu, and an equatorial mountain range 11,000 feet high, probably made of water ice.

And we’ve learned all this from just the few far-away images New Horizons sent during its approach, and one high-res image from the flyby—which was the only close-up picture released at the time of this recording. By now, we’ve probably been treated to several more, each a revelation unto itself.

And it’s just an initial trickle of the data that the spacecraft will be sending Earthward over the next several months, which scientists will be parsing for years. And just like that, our universe is suddenly that much bigger.

So NASA Administrator John Grunsfeld really wasn’t exaggerating when he made this lofty proclamation at the post flyby press conference:

“We’ve opened up a new realm of the solar system. A new realm of human discovery.”

Equal enthusiasm came from New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern, one of New Horizons’ most boisterous advocates, who put the mission accomplishment into a broader context:

“Following in the footsteps of legendary projects by NASA called Mariner, Pioneer and Voyager, New Horizons has succeeded at completing the capstone event for the historic first era of planetary reconnaissance—a half-century-long endeavor that will forever be a legacy of our time.”

A capstone event. I like that. I also like that this truly remarkable milestone in scientific achievement couldn’t have been accomplished without a technology so relatively old that most of us don’t even think about it any longer: radio.

All of the communications to and data transmissions from New Horizons have been carried out via radio. Radio has kept New Horizons on course, and will continue to transmit its future discoveries.

After completing its five-month study of Pluto and its moons, the spacecraft will continue further out into the Kuiper Belt—making history all over again as it explores this virtually unknown region of our outer solar system, following up its capstone achievement in planetary reconnaissance by kicking off a new chapter of space exploration.

The milestone achievements of New Horizons coincide with my own small milestone: Tonight’s show marks DeFlip Side’s fourteenth year on the air as part of Destinies: The Voice of Science Fiction.

And, as with New Horizons, none of it would have been possible without the magic of radio. But unlike New Horizons, I had no idea that DeFlip Side was destined to travel so long and so far.

It has grown from a series of articles I did for a small e-zine in the late 1990s into a regular feature on one of the nation’s longest running Science Fiction radio programs. It spawned a website of its own along the way, and has been honored three times for journalistic excellence by the Press Club of Long Island—most recently last month, when DeFlip Side took first place for a blog created and maintained by an individual.

None of this would have been possible without the help of Destinies host Howard Margolin, who invited me to be a regular contributor all those years ago, and who has been my partner in exploring new horizons in radio ever since. Thanks Howard. When I step back to consider where we’ve wound up, I’m quite frankly amazed.

“We’ve been using this word a lot—amazing…”

That’s New Horizons Mission Operations Manager Alice Bowman again—affectionately called “MOM” by the rest of the mission staff, who said New Horizons’ amazing flight helped her realize a life-long ambition to explore space:

“Do what you’re passionate about. Don’t do something because it’s easy. Do something because you want to do it. Give yourself that challenge, and you will not be sorry for it.”

I’m not. And I plan to continue the challenge for as long as I’m able, like New Horizons, transmitting my message at the speed of light to anyone who can listen. It might not be a capstone event in human achievement, but it’s a new horizon all my own.