We ♥ Pluto
And it appears Pluto loves us back – its “two-tone heart” has enchanted scientists and the general public alike. But what’s that got to do with analytical science?
Rich Whitworth |
After a journey of over three billion miles, New Horizons has successfully completed its flyby of Pluto (1) – a feat akin to “a golfer in New York hitting a hole-in-one in Los Angeles,” according to project manager Glen Fountain (2). And though I disagree with likening the accomplishment to a truly impossible task (that would be a truly gargantuan swing), I do appreciate just how thrilled everyone involved in the project must feel.
Avid readers of The Analytical Scientist will know that I’m somewhat hooked on our exploration of space. But it’s not just because of my childhood (OK – and adulthood) love of science fiction. I am more fascinated by the deep collaborative effort required; to gain any (useful) knowledge from such bold attempts to reach beyond our own planet, we need the total diligence and focus of many scientific disciplines – including analytical scientists.
New Horizons’ scientific payload was developed to answer some relatively simple questions about Pluto, for example, “What is its atmosphere made of, and how does it behave?” (3). To name but a few of the instruments employed, there is Ralph (visible and infrared imager/spectrometer), Alice (UV imaging spectrometer) and PEPSSI (Pluto Energetic Particle Spectrometer Science Investigation) – all of which demanded a great deal of effort behind the headline-grabbing scenes (for one such story, see page 14). Alan Stern, New Horizons Principal Investigator, shared a little news on that front: “We’ve discovered that the putative polar cap on Pluto’s north pole is just that. We now have compositional spectroscopy that shows methane ice and nitrogen ice there.”
But let’s not forget even simpler, almost childlike, questions. How big is it? Well, bigger than we thought. Measurement of its mass was relatively straightforward (for astrophysicists), but accurately predicting size was evidently harder. Indeed, the latest data requires a rethink of the ice-to-rock ratio of a less-dense Pluto (or suggests that it has been hollowed out by aliens seeking refuge.)
And so to my first point: accurate measurements shape our world – and beyond. Whether we are investigating planetary bodies or metabolomic profiles of single cells, the measurements we deem to be acceptable form the basis of knowledge or decisions.
My second point: as Barry Karger notes, there are plenty of questions left to solve. And accurately answering even the simplest ones is not always as straightforward as it first appears.