It’s always good to dream big, but sometimes dreams take you in unexpected directions. Growing up with science fiction, I reveled in tales of manned exploration of the Solar System and nearby stars, many of which I assumed would eventually become reality. But I never dreamed about personal computers. You can go through the corpus of science fiction in the first two-thirds of the 20th Century and find many a computer, but there are few tales involving personal computers on the desktop. An exception is Murray Leinster’s short story ‘A Logic Named Joe,’ which ran in the March 1946 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. Leinster invokes something like today’s massively networked computers in a story that anticipates the Internet.
How did science fiction fail to see something as huge as the PC revolution coming down the tracks? Maybe it’s because the future still surprises even those whose business it is to imagine it. I’m musing about all this because of my own desktop PC and the views it’s showing me, not to mention the continuous datastream that updates every mission I’m keeping an eye on. Surely this is a science fictional future as real as Leinster’s.
A widely distributed network lets us see things on demand, one of a kind things like an object that has never before been seen in detail as it slowly swims into focus in our cameras. We’ll have that experience in 2015 as New Horizons arrives at Pluto/Charon, but we’re also getting a taste of it right now as the Dawn spacecraft approaches Vesta. What we’re seeing in the early images has been taken for navigation purposes by Dawn’s framing camera, and as the video shows, we’re already looking at views that are twice as sharp as the best images previously available from the Hubble Space Telescope. Surface details are still a mystery, but Dawn will eventually swing as close as 200 kilometers around the asteroid.
With Vesta and then Ceres ahead of us, let’s also keep a close eye on Pluto, and we don’t have to wait until 2015. In late June, NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) — a modified Boeing 747SP carrying a 2.5-meter telescope at high altitude — was able to observe an occultation as Pluto passed in front of a background star. This is a case where SOFIA’s airborne capabilities shone, for Pluto’s shadow fleetingly passed over a mostly empty stretch of the Pacific Ocean. SOFIA was able to position itself in the center of the shadow’s path to make the observations.
You wouldn’t think you could do much with Pluto from a mobile observatory here on Earth, but the science is actually quite rich, says Ted Dunham (Lowell Observatory), who led the team of scientists onboard SOFIA during the Pluto observations:
“Occultations give us the ability to measure pressure, density, and temperature profiles of Pluto’s atmosphere without leaving the Earth. Because we were able to maneuver SOFIA so close to the center of the occultation we observed an extended, small, but distinct brightening near the middle of the occultation. This change will allow us to probe Pluto’s atmosphere at lower altitudes than is usually possible with stellar occultations.”
I have no images of this one, but it’s easy to follow the exploits of SOFIA on the Net. It’s also worth noting that Dunham was a member of the team that originally discovered Pluto’s atmosphere by observing another stellar occultation using the Kuiper Airborne Observatory in 1988. SOFIA’s mobility allowed the scientists to quickly change position when it was learned that the center of the shadow would cross 200 kilometers north of the aircraft’s flight path. A revised flight plan and air traffic control clearance allowed the productive change of course.
Our space-based resources send us things we would never have imagined seeing, as witness ESA’s Mars Express, which was able to perform a special maneuver of its own to observe an unusual alignment of Jupiter and the Martian moon Phobos. The alignment occurred on June 1, when there was a distance of 11,389 kilometers between Mars Express and Phobos, and a further 529 million kilometers to Jupiter.
Image: Three frames from the series of 104 taken by Mars Express during the Phobos–Jupiter conjunction on 1 June 2011. Credits: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin (G. Neukum).
We often lament how the future that was imagined in the 1950s and 60s hasn’t materialized — where are the human missions to the outer planets we thought would be flying now? — but the big surprise that science fiction never showed us was what we could see by staying home. Now we wind up looking at imagery from robotic missions on demand, tapping cameras orbiting Mars and closing on major asteroids. Moreover, a high definition video stream studying Earth down to one-meter resolution from the International Space Station is scheduled to go online in 2012. No humans near Jupiter yet, but the view on our personal screens seems to be getting better all the time.