With all the excitement about the results coming back from New Horizons about Pluto, it was easy to miss the ‘little’ news snippet that they have found a Solar System similar to ours. To quote the article: Our potential match lies about 200 light-years from Earth near a star called HIP 11915 that is very much like our sun. The star can be seen using binoculars near the constellation Cetus in North America’s southern night skies.
200 light means that we can get there with generation ships! Consequences of this announcement are enormous… it will gradually dawn on people that we can have a back-up to own Solar System that could sustain life without being under a dome or in an airtight habitat underground or waiting a long time for terraforming. Obviously more observations and research are needed, but this is a great start! Returning to Pluto… there have been people moaning that sending a probe to Pluto was and still is a waste of money, which could have been better spent on feeding the hungry or helping with much needed medical supplies or other such good works. My answer to this comes in several parts:
- We don’t know enough about our Sun yet to be certain that it will continue to shine in a stable configuration, which in turns means giving the wherewithal for food etc to be farmed. By sending a probe to Pluto we will gain a better understanding of the Solar System’s history, which in turn will help the scientists work out more about how the Sun works, which in turn could be used to pre-empt any detrimental effects the Sun might throw at us.
- We don’t yet know how life formed. Which means we don’t know how aliens can form and where to look for them. Those aliens may be hostile to us (hopefully not, but it’s possible) in which case we need to know if and when we need to take suitable measures to protect ourselves. Remember Alastair Reynolds’ light-huggers? They would look like ice-balls to us if they were incoming from another system.
- Finally, we need to know what real estate people can settle on in the future. The population on this planet despite best endeavours by some governments to limit the numbers, continues to rise. People need to live somewhere, somehow. The next step in the Moon or Mars (depending on which school of thought you come from), but we would eventually head out to the Kuiper Belt where Pluto is the King. As Pluto has a 248 year orbit that his highly eccentric, we need to know now what is going on with the dwarf planet. We won’t get another chance for another quarter of a millenium, which when engineering considerations are taken into account could be too late.
As if to back-up what I have been saying, Pluto has been full of surprises for the astrophysicists. They are not seeing what they expected to see. Here are some of the pointers to date:
- The lack of craters on it proves that it has a comparatively young geology. That means there is active cryo-volcanism going on.
- There is now a suggestion that complex hydrocarbons are forming and finding their way into the cracks of the surface where liquid whatever exists. Speculation in the past has suggested that life could be based on methane. Could this be the place where it could be found?
- The methane ice coating is more complex than they scientists expected. It’s going to take some real explaining.
- The surrounding nitrogen atmosphere reaches out from Pluto much further than expected.
- Then there is that strange mountain – the scientists are baffled as to how it could have come into being.
There’s more… but when all the information has been gathered and analysed, our understanding of science and what exists in the Solar System will have come on in leaps and bounds. This whole venture will act as an inspiration to the children of today to take science and technology subjects. There are too few of us now, let alone in the future when those who were inspired by the science fiction of Golden Age (1940s / 1950s / 1960s) are heading for retirement.
What surprises (and saddens) me greatly is that there has not been a whole load of science fiction stories published in anticipation of the New Horizons encounter – like there was with Viking landings on Mars. I am not sure of what the reasons for this are… and it is certainly something that needs to be looked into. Edit: A summary of what has been discovered about Pluto and its moons so far can be seen here