From the Desk of Don Slinger Issue 55

Summer 2005 CSANews Issue 55  |  Posted date : May 20, 2007.Back to list

Hi Folks!

I just finished reading a book authored by Bill Bryson entitled, "A Short History of Nearly Everything."

The author is not a scientist, but rather a collector of historical anecdotes, gee-whiz facts and gleeful accounts of eccentricities of great scientists.

Astronomers today can do the most amazing things. If someone struck a match on the moon, they could spot the flare. From the tiniest throbs and wobbles of distant stars, they can infer the size and character and even potential habitability of planets much too remote to be seen. Planets so far distant that it would take us half a million years in a spaceship to get there.

Back in 1978, one astronomer discovered that the planet Pluto had a moon. It was a blurry image, but other astronomers agreed that it really was a moon and was relative to the planet. It was the biggest moon in the solar system.

Since the space occupied by Pluto and the moon was originally thought to contain Pluto alone, they now know that Pluto is much smaller than originally thought – even smaller than Mercury. Indeed, seven moons in the solar system, including ours, are larger.

After Christy spotted Pluto's moon, astronomers began to regard that section of the cosmos more attentively. From as early as 2002, more than 600 additional Trans-Neptune objects or Plutinos, as they are alternately called, have been found.

Astronomers now believe that there may be billions of these objects. They have an albedo, or reflectiveness, of just four per cent – about the same as charcoal. These lumps of charcoal are about a billion miles away.

And how far is that exactly? It's almost beyond imagination. Space, you see, is just enormous. Let's imagine, for purposes of edification and entertainment, that we are about to go on a journey by rocketship. We won't go terribly far – just to the edge of our solar system. We need to get a fix on how big a place space is and what a small portion of it we occupy.

Now the bad news – we won't be home for dinner. Even at the speed of light, it would take seven hours to get to Pluto. Since we can't travel that fast, we will slow down to the speed of our spaceship. Our fastest ships, Voyagers 1 and 2, travel at about 35,000 miles per hour.

The reason the Voyager crafts were launched in August and September of 1977 was that Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune were aligned in a way that only happens every 175 years.

It took them nine years to reach Uranus and a dozen to cross the orbit of Pluto. The good news is that if we wait until January 2006 (which is when NASA's New Horizons spaceship is tentatively scheduled to depart Pluto), we can take advantage of favourable Jovian positioning and some advances in technology and get there in a decade or so. Getting home again will take rather longer, I'm afraid. At all events, it's going to be a long journey.

Now aren't you glad I read the book, "A Short History of Nearly Everything"?

A friend told me about being invited to play a round of golf on a very high class golf course. He said he just missed a hole in one – by five shots.

God Bless!