by Gordon Lamont
Suitable for Whole School (Sec)
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 now it is classed as a dwarf or minor planet because of its small size and it is similar to many other objects in its area, which is the far reaches of the solar system known as the Kuiper Belt.
- 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.
- The New Horizons probe has discovered so much. Before it reached Pluto, people thought that it would be covered in craters, like our moon. There are indeed craters, but most are smoothed over and there are other areas that suggest there could be gentle heating coming from below. So, Pluto seems to be an active world or else have been active in the recent past. There are also huge mountains, probably made of water ice, and a strange-looking region that’s been named informally Sputnik Planum or Plain - a flat surface broken up into rough polygons.
- So, as usual with scientific discoveries, there are some answers, but also many new questions. In this case, there are also huge surprises. It seems that there could even be a dark ocean of liquid water deep below the frozen surface.
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 is a major scientific achievement, but what prompts our quest for knowledge, why do we need to know what’s over the next hill or past the next planet?
This is part of perhaps the most intriguing question of all: what is a human being?
It seems that cultivating curiosity to find out more about our world, our universe and ourselves helps us to answer that question.
Chosen piece of music