Missions like Nasa’s flyby of Ultima Thule, and China’s to place a lander on the far side of the moon, are more than a triumph of technology
Some things are almost too extraordinary to comprehend. Take what is almost the smallest and simplest measurement from the New Horizons space probe which has just passed Ultima Thule: it is travelling at 32,000 miles an hour, a speed that is more than 50 times faster than anyone alive on Earth has travelled – unless they are a military pilot or an astronaut. In fact, it’s close to magic: Puck boasts in A Midsummer Night’s Dream that he can girdle the Earth in 40 minutes; New Horizons could do it in 50. This is not an easy speed at which to control anything. Yet, while moving that fast, and so far from Earth that it takes radio signals, travelling at the speed of light, more than six hours to reach it, the probe has been flown within 2,400 miles of a lump of rock 20 miles long which is itself hurtling through space in an orbit it has kept since before the Earth was formed.
As Nasa announced the mission’s success, China was attempting to place a lander on the far side of the moon to help to decide whether a radio telescope could some day be built there, entirely screened from the interference of earthly civilisation. Nasa has already managed to put another spacecraft in orbit around a tiny asteroid, only 500m in diameter and much closer to Earth than Ultima Thule: the plan here is to land on the rock, collect samples, and return with them to Earth by 2023. There are two Nasa probes on Mars, sending back a stream of data, videos, and even the sounds of the wind on an alien planet. Space exploration demands extraordinary technologies, and has helped to produce some of them. But it also requires extraordinary human qualities: for astronauts, great bravery, but for everyone, ingenuity, imagination, discipline, and even a sort of altruism. The scientists and engineers, and the astronauts themselves, all need to work for decades for little material reward: New Horizons will bring nothing back but knowledge. There is nothing to exploit in the outer reaches of the solar system, just the boundless satisfaction of understanding the universe a little bit better.
Link : The Guardian view on spaceflight: the outward urge