by Gordon Lamont
Suitable for Key Stage 2
To reflect on humans' curiosity, which sent the New Horizons spacecraft to Pluto.
Preparation and materials
- This story will develop over time so check news websites (such as BBC News' website's Science and environment section, at: http://tinyurl.com/q2cvd4a) for the latest details and images.
- Prime a colleague to interrupt you during the 'Assembly', Steps 2 and 4, in the manner described.
- Have available a piece of suitably futuristic music or that is evocative of space travel and the means to play it at the end of the assembly.
- Describe the New Horizons space probe, giving some basic facts from your research, such as the following.
- When the probe left Earth, about nine years ago, Pluto was considered to be the outermost planet in the solar system.
- Weeks after its launch, however, scientists decided that Pluto was not a fully fledged planet and it is now classed as a dwarf or minor planet.
- Of course, this made no difference to Pluto as it continued to orbit 3.6 billion miles from the sun. The Earth is only 83 million miles from the sun, which is a bit like only having to walk to the corner shop versus trekking around the world.
- Make out that you are about to continue when the primed member of staff suddenly says clearly, ‘Yes’.
Do not act surprised by this - simply explain that, eight hours ago, you asked Ms/Mr . . . if she/he wanted a cup of coffee (make a joke about how hardworking teachers are if this puts your request in the middle of the night!), but she/he is in New Horizons mode, which means it takes four hours or more for the message to get there and the same for Ms/Mr . . . ’s reply to reach you because the probe is so far away. You hope she/he likes cold coffee!
Speaking of which, the surface of Pluto is very cold - about minus 233 degrees Celsius in some places. That is much colder than living inside an ice-cream.
- The New Horizons probe has discovered so much. Before it reached Pluto, people thought that it would be covered in craters, like our moon, but its surface, it turns out, is much more varied, with huge ice mountains and strange flat-looking regions broken up into rough polygons and maybe even an ocean of liquid water way beneath the surface.
- So, as usual with scientific discoveries, there are some answers, but also many new questions.
Your colleague suddenly says, ‘. . . please.’ You explain that not only does it take four hours or more for New Horizons to send its messages and pictures but it can also only send them very slowly because it has very little power to send them across the vast distance between Pluto and Earth. So, it will take over a year for the data collected in its flyby of Pluto and its moons to come back to Earth - bit by bit.
Time for reflection
The New Horizons probe has survived a long, dangerous and freezing journey, carrying human hopes and curiosity way out into space, all the way to Pluto, which is right on the edge of the solar system.
It was sent on its way by rocket power and something else - the power of human curiosity, our need to know more about our world and the universe.
It started with some questions. What is Pluto like? What’s out there? How do we find out?
It has found some answers and some more questions.
There is always more to discover, whether we are part of a space exploration project or in a school.
What do you want to discover more about today?
Chosen piece of music