CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER

Krauthammer: Pluto and us

Charles Krauthammer
The Washington Post

We need a pick-me-up. Amid the vandalizing of Palmyra, the imminent extinction of the northern white rhino, the disarray threatening Europe’s most ambitious attempt ever at peaceful unification — amid plague and pestilence and, by God, in the middle of Shark Week — where can humanity turn for uplift?

Meet New Horizons, arriving at Pluto on July 14. Small and light, the fastest spacecraft ever launched, it left Earth with such velocity that it shot past our moon in nine hours. A speeding bullet the size of a Steinway, it has flown 9 1/2 years to the outer edges of the solar system.

To Pluto, the now-demoted “dwarf planet” that lives beyond the Original Eight in the far distant “third zone” of the solar system — the Kuiper Belt, an unimaginably huge ring of rocks and ice and sundry debris where the dwarf is king.

After 3 billion miles, New Horizons will on Tuesday shoot right through Pluto’s mini-planetary system of five moons, the magnificently named Charon, Styx, Nix, Hydra and Kerberos.

Why through? Because, while the other planets lie on roughly the same plane, Pluto and its moon system stick up at an angle to that plane like a giant archery target. New Horizons gets one pass, going straight by the bull’s-eye. No orbiting around, no lingering for months or even years to photograph and study.

No mulligans. And no navigating. Can’t do that when it takes 4 1/2 hours for a message from Earth to arrive. This is a preprogrammed, single-take, nine-day deal.

For what? First, for the science, the coming avalanche of new knowledge. Remember: We didn’t even know there was a Pluto until 85 years ago when astronomer Clyde Tombaugh found a strange tiny dot moving across the star field.

Today, we still know practically nothing. In fact, two of the five moons were not discovered until after New Horizons was launched. And yet next week we will see an entirely new world come to life. “We’re not planning to rewrite any textbooks,” said principal investigator Alan Stern in a splendid New York Times documentary on the mission. “We’re planning to write them from scratch.”

Then there’s the romance. The Pluto fly-by caps a half-century of solar system exploration that has yielded staggering new wonders. Such as Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons, with its vast subterranean ocean under a crust of surface ice, the most inviting potential habitat for extraterrestrial life that human beings will ever reach.

Yes, ever. Promising exoplanets are being discovered by the week. But they are unreachable.

For the wretched race of beings we surely are, we do, on occasion, manage to soar.

Charles Krauthammer writes for The Washington Post.