January 1, 2019, by Brigitte Nerlich
When space becomes the last refuge for the soul
The last few years have been bad, in terms of climate, politics, humanity. I don’t expect this new year to be much better, unless we all pull our socks up, so to speak.
Where once we were forward looking and outward looking, embracing the new, engaging with others, many are now more and more inward looking, afraid of the new and of others, and our horizons of expectations are shrinking.
But while our everyday horizons are shrinking, we still have ‘new horizons’ in space (I know, bad pun). And that is something to be grateful for.
Today is the day that NASA’s space probe New Horizons flies by the farthest and possibly oldest cosmic body ever explored by humans. With this probe NASA is going almost literally to the edges of the world to take pictures and more of Kuiper Belt object 2014 MU69, nicknamed Ultima Thule.
People had speculated about the existence of the Kuiper Belt, a belt of icy space objects, for a while but evidence for it was only found in 1992! New Horizons started its journey towards it in 2006, reaching Pluto in 2015 and sending back the most amazing pictures. Ultima Thule is one million miles past Pluto.
New Horizons is supposed to beam back first scientific data on Ultima Thule’s geology, composition, atmosphere and more today – and pictures of course! And so far things are looking good. These data and images might give us insights into how planets, including our own dear little earth, were formed. [Added on 6 January: We now know that Ultima Thule looks like a snowman, which, of course, reminded many of 67P, the rubber duck; a nice blog post on the snowman by Ian Sheard can be found here; an older post on the rubber duck here]
If you want to know why and how the new icy object of interest was chosen to be ‘scienced’, you can read this interesting thread by Alex Parker; and for updates follow NASA’s New Horizon twitter account.
The name Ultima Thule is based on a mixture of Latin and Greek and mythology of the far north. As Wikipedia points out: “Thule (/ˈθjuːliː/ THEW-leeGreek: Θούλη Thoúlē, Latin: Thūlē) was the place located furthest north, which was mentioned in ancient Greek and Roman literature and cartography. In classical and medieval literature, ultima Thule (Latin ‘furthermost Thule’) acquired a metaphorical meaning of any distant place located beyond the ‘borders of the known world’.”
I have used an image of ‘Thule’ as represented on a medieval map by Olaus Magnus (1539) as the featured image for this post.
But there is also music! When trawling the internet, I found that in 1971 a German band called Tangerine Dream included a song entitled “Ultima Thule” in their rock album “Alpha Centauri”!
It is always nice to find these intersections between science, engineering, technology and culture!* We are all connected by space, time and culture. We should not let people draw us apart or erect real or metaphorical borders between us!
Collaboration and togetherness
While I started writing this post on the morning of 1 January, 2019, I switched on the radio and discovered that the Radio 4 Today programme was devoted to space. My ears pricked up especially at 8.36 or so when Jason Crusan of NASA said: “If you want to go quick go alone. If you want to stay go together.” Another version of this saying goes: “If you want to go fast go alone. If you want to go far go together.” Togetherness is key.
If you want to broaden your horizons, go together; don’t withdraw into splendid isolation. This could be a motto for the new year, couldn’t it?
This made me think about what has happened since the beginning of 2016, when our horizons began to narrow, while, at the same time, our space horizons started to expand. I only list a few events that caught my eye.
All these missions are based on international collaborations, on people working together, not apart.
In 2016 the NASA’s spacecraft Juno reached Jupiter; the Kepler mission continued to verify more than a thousand newfound alien planets; the Hubble Space Telescope sent pictures back of water vapour plumes erupting from Jupiter’s icy moon, Europa. 2016 was also the year that ESA’s historic Rosetta mission concluded as planned, with the controlled impact onto the comet 67P it had been investigating since 2014.
In 2017, NASA’s Cassini probe, which had been orbiting Saturn since 2004, plunged to its death. In 2018, NASA sent a new lander to Mars; it sent the Parker Solar Probe to the sun; it sent a spacecraft to an asteroid called Bennu, and he European and Japanese space agencies launched BepiColombo, a mission to explore the planet Mercury. And so on…..
Between 2016 and 2018, when our world was shrinking, space was there as a solace for the collective soul.
A moral imperative
I have quoted him before, but I’ll do so again now, as we enter a new year where we need all the moral guidance we can get.
Immanuel Kant said in his Critique of Practical Reason (1788): “Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more often and steadily we reflect upon them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me. I do not seek or conjecture either of them as if they were veiled obscurities or extravagances beyond the horizon of my vision; I see them before me and connect them immediately with the consciousness of my existence.”
Let’s do that, all of us!