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20/3/2004: The Nits in Paradiso

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Discussion overview on
Monday, 26 October 2015 Symeon Charalabides (

The blog Bridging The Gaps deals with mainstream but also fringe scientific ideas, notions and thought experiments and discusses them with the help of leading researchers and thinkers in their respective fields.

My chosen subject on the blog is the New Horizons mission, in which Dr. Mark Showalter of the SETI institute talks about the mission itself and its imminent (then) flyby of Pluto, along with a number of other topics, such as the demotion of Pluto from planet to dwarf planet, the future of the mission past Pluto and the solar system, etc. Dr. Showalter is an observational astronomer who has discovered, among other things, a moon of Saturn, Pan [1] and two moons of Uranus, Cupid and Mab [2]. This discussion topic aligns better than any other with my personal interest in astronomy and my existing M.Sc. in same.

The parts of the podcast I found particularly interesting were:

  • The fact that the search for rings around Pluto in 2011 led to the subsequent discovery of 2 additional moons [3], Kerberos and Styx,

  • The fact that Pluto takes up only 2 pixels in the field view of the highest resolution optical camera on the Hubble telescope, making it impossible to do any optical research on it unless we actually fly there,

  • The expectation of volcanoes and active volcanism on the frigid world that is Pluto (in retrospect, no signs of active volcanism have been found although cryovolcanism is a possibility [4]),

  • The fact that, once past Pluto, the New Horizons spacecraft will have the option to do a flyby of a Kuiper Belt object, giving us our first real observations of this class of objects and this fringe area of our solar system

  • The public campaign “Our Pluto” to name features and areas of Pluto and Charon by soliciting public suggestions. The field of astronomy has a rich history of public involvement, a major example of which being the famous programme SETI@Home (not associated with the SETI institute), which was one of the first crowdsourced research projects.

While there’s nothing controversial about the contents of Dr. Showalter’s interview per se, it’s fair to say that every subject dealing with the exploration of the solar system, particularly its outer limits, will come across criticism from various corners, claiming some variation of the theme that we should be focusing on problems here on earth instead of wasting money on space exploration. I strongly disagree with this course of thought for two main reasons:

  1. Money that goes to space exploration isn’t wasted, it just changes hands. This is a basic economic tenet that not everybody grasps; money just circulates and isn’t blown away into space. At worst, we are wasting some metal and the odd radioactive material (assuming it’s all for naught), but the money, experience, technical know-how and the science stays right here on earth.

  2. Most importantly, countless technological advances have stemmed from expeditions such as these, whether on earth or outer space. From the invention of penicillin to plastics and from gunpowder to X-rays, some of our finest moments as a species happened while looking for something else. Our need to push the limits of our knowledge and understanding is inherent and cannot be reined in by shallow political arguments.


[1] Showalter, M. R. (27 June 1991). "Visual detection of 1981S13, Saturn's eighteenth satellite, and its role in the Encke gap". Nature 351 (6329): 709–73

[2] Showalter, M. R.; Lissauer (17 February 2006). "The second ring-moon system of Uranus: discovery and dynamics". Science 311 (5763): 973–977.

[3] Showalter, M. R.; Hamilton, D. P. (2011-07-20). "New Satellite of (134340) Pluto: S/2011 (134340) 1". Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams. International Astronomical Union

[4] Stern, S. A. et al (2015-10-16). “The Pluto system: Initial results from its exploration by New Horizons”. Science Vol. 350 no. 6258

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