Thursday, 3 January 2019
New Year, New Horizons
As the Earth completed another voyage around the sun and people across our pale blue dot celebrated the new year in staggered waves of time zones, incredible images and achievements from space convey both a sense of awe and wonder at the majestic beauty and mystery of our galactic neck of the woods, and offer us a perspectival shift, reminding us how tenuous are fragile ecosystem is, and also how tenacious we are as a species.
Only 30 minutes into the New Year, and NASA scientists received images of the most distant object in the solar system reached thus far, in this case by the New Horizon spacecraft, which beamed back images of ‘Ultima Thule’, a mysterious object 4.1 billion miles (6.6 billion kilometres) from Earth in the Kuiper Belt, home to frozen relics left over from the birth of the solar system. At first, the images, which will take about 20 months to be sent back in full, resembled an unpromising cluster of blurry pixels , but these have been rendered in more detail to reveal a double-spheroid object that looks all the world like a giant snowman, one with a reddish tinge.
And within 24 hours the Chinese had landed a probe on the dark side of the moon – another first. A remarkable success for their scientists and engineers, but also a transnational moment, akin to iconic ‘Earth Rise’ photograph taken by the first Apollo astronauts to reach the moon fifty years ago.
It is easy to criticise space exploration for being hugely wasteful of resources, and focusing the very best scientific minds in the wrong direction, when the Earth’s climate is in crisis, the global population rockets as resources dwindle, and we should be solving our problems down here, rather than escaping into space, and possibly taking the very same problems with us. And yet, such moments make us take a step outside of ourselves – see ourselves from the distant edges of the solar system, or all our concerns, inequalities, wall-building, and vainglorious efforts, eclipsed by the dark side of the moon. Another recent image from space emphasised the sense of scale – a montage sequence of photographs showing two of Jupiter’s moons, Europa and Io, passing in front of the Great Red Spot, a breathtaking reminder of minuteness and magnitude. These images from the Cassini spacecraft (and also from the JUNO probe) have shown how eerily beautiful Jupiter and it’s moon are. Beyond the Moon and Mars, the future of our species my depend upon what may be found there. And this is the idea that I explore in my novel Black Box, which uncannily features a survey base on Europa christened Ultima Thule. Such a place, a mythical northern land beyond the pale of civilisation, has haunted humankind for centuries. It was thought to have existed somewhere within the arctic circle, but now it seems we are discovering it on the edges of our solar system, where objects preserved at absolute zero may contain clues to the origins of life – that unlikeliest of miracles in the cold, indifferent void of the cosmos.