Thursday, 16 July 2015

Beauty at the edge of where we know

Some where in the mid 1970s - which is many years ago now, on some long hot days in the (then) small town of Akola in rural Maharashtra, a small boy avidly read old issues of Popular Science from the late 1960s.

The magazines had lavish stories about what the future will be like.  Space travel and colonisation were prominently featured.   Fanciful descriptions of personal rocket propelled vehicles, terraforming and high-tech mega cities that swirled around new and distant planets were devoured by the boy.  Images of sleek future dwellers were pored over.  Work colonies on other planets - with large bowl like covers to keep an atmosphere congenial to humans were pored over by the lad.

That fellow was me.  The stash of magazines was at some library which the Christian and Missionary Alliance Mission had started in Akola.  We were there to be with our 'adopted grandparents' the Carners - and for me the old library was heaven on earth.

I have shelved most of my interplanetary dreams... and then a spaceship actually illuminates the face of that remarkable body Pluto.  We grew up calling that tiny celestial object (1/3rd the size of our moon) that takes 248 earth-years to orbit the sun a planet.  A decade ago Pluto was (in my view) cruelly demoted by the astronomical powers to be to a 'dwarf-planet' - most likely the nearest one of what may by myriad such frozen mini worlds in the kuiper belt.

So yesterday the first pictures arrive back here on earth of Pluto.  The first real pictures that show what this world looks like.  The first time we have had a glimpse of that which we only had a name for - and the most grainy of speculations about what this world and her 5 moons ('satellites') may be like.

And what a set of pictures the first ones are!

Here is a NASA set of images of Pluto - taken as the New Horizons craft came closer and closer to it!

The final images are just the first of what will be a treasure trove of first views of a world till now largely unknown.  Almost 9 years after it was launched, the New Horizons craft has gone a jaw dropping 4 billion kms through space and has sent images that caused the head of the programme Alan Stern to react like this when he saw the first images:

Those eyes look about the size of Pluto - but that is sheer excitement about seeing things like this:

Wow - a whole new world.  And one which is being looked at right now with amazement and delight.  Especially when you get detailed shots of the surface with show what appear to be 'ice-mountains' that are over 3000 meters high.

So there we have it.  Beauty at the edge of where we know - and stunning images of places seen for the first time.

How about a bit of Keats to enjoy the moment fully:

Then I felt like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez, when with eagle eyes
He stared at the Pacific - and all his men
Look'd at each other with wild surmise -
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

                                                                   - John Keats (On first looking into Chapman's Homer)

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