A couple of astronomical things tickled my fancy recently. First was the arrival back, after a long day’s journey into night, of the Japanese space ship that had journeyed to the asteroid belt, landed, astonishingly, on an asteroid, taken a sample of dirt, set sail again for Earth, and arrived back, by parachute, in the Australian desert. Television news managed, as always with science stories, to get this all wrong, persisting in saying the capsule had “crash-landed” even while showing pictures of its parachute, and persisting in saying it would reveal the “origins of the universe” when of course it was all about the origins of the solar system.
Anyway, the sight of that capsule lying in the desert gave me a warm fuzzy feeling – I mean mostly, as a species, we are pretty rubbish, let’s face it, but every so often we excel ourselves. “Hah”, we can say to the chimps, still investigating sticks and stone tools, “bet you couldn’t get a spaceship to the asteroids and back”. If only we could excel ourselves a bit more often.
Next example isn’t for 5 years. The softly landing capsule roughly coincided with the second anniversary of Pluto losing its status as a planet and becoming just another rock in the Kuiper belt (sort of like the asteroid belt except outside the solar system, not in the middle of it). Never mind, it is still important enough to have a space mission aimed at it about 5 trillion kilometres away. When “New Horizons” flies by Pluto in 2015 we will, astonishingly, be able to see close up photos of the surface of an object that is so far away even the most powerful telescopes can make out nothing of what it is like from here. If there was no other reason for making sure you were still alive in 2015, the prospect of these images would be reason enough for me. And I will again dip my lid to the best and brightest of Homo sapiens.
But in this brave new world that has such creatures in it, why on Earth can’t we do a better job of all these minor problems of stopping greenhouse gas production, preventing war, sorting out hunger and disease for 90% of the planet’s inhabitants, getting decent television news bulletins, getting rid of Steve Fielding from the Senate?
I mean, none of that stuff is rocket science, is it?