In addition to being a better place for X-ray and radio telescopes, what else can we learn from going to the moon?
Missions to the moon would let us test new technologies or study how an extreme environment impacts the health of astronauts. This type of mission, where we have people stay for an extended period of time on the moon, would be invaluable for figuring out how one might set up a colony on Mars.
Do you think NASA will be heading to the moon anytime soon?
The U.S. doesn’t have the ability to send people into space anymore, and it’s been a long time since we sent people to the moon. I would be curious to see what happens if China sends their own astronauts to the moon and whether that motivates Congress to allocate the money to do that mission again. It’s certainly not technologically impossible, just expensive.
A trip to the moon takes a few weeks, but New Horizons has been traveling for more than 10 years. How do scientists prepare for these extremely long-distance journeys?
A lot of the preparation is technical; the components of the spacecraft have to be stable and robust for decades. It also needs a reliable power source that will keep everything going, and it needs to be built so that scientists on Earth can change the course of the spacecraft if they need to. For a mission like New Horizons, there also have to be very specific plans about the science: What the goals are, what data will be collected, and where the spacecraft will go.
Another thing that scientists have to consider is that the further the spacecraft gets from the sun the harder it is to get data. New Horizons has one antenna that sends images back to Earth. These images are huge, similar in size to what you would get from a digital SLR camera. The challenge is that the bandwidth from way out there is slower than a dial-up modem. It works at a few hundred bits per second, compared to the first-generation modems that were closer to 28,000 bits per second.
It takes a long time to get the data, so scientists have to be careful about what they take images of. It will take around 20 months to get back the images that New Horizons has taken just in the past few days.
What makes New Horizons’ journey such an important one?
One of the really rare things about New Horizons is that the mission was enhanced and extended mid-course. At some point on the way to Pluto, a journey that took more than 10 years, scientists decided that New Horizons could keep traveling in order to visit other objects in the outer solar system.
These scientists might have had a vague idea of where they would go after Pluto, but specific places to visit within the Kuiper belt would not have been chosen pre-launch. Some of the objects might not have even been discovered when New Horizons was first launched. The one that ended up being chosen [Ultima Thule] was easy to get to and bound to be interesting because of its shape and structure.