Worth reading: Eagle Scout visits Titanic; Planning a trip to outer space

Worth reading: Eagle Scout visits Titanic; Planning a trip to outer space

Dr. Alan Stern, planetary scientist, engineer, and principal investigator on the New Horizons mission to Pluto, poses with a model globe of Pluto, at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado. Photo by Beth Wald

Alan Stern has been busy for the past few years.

Engineer, planetary scientist, and Eagle Scout is the principal investigator on the New Horizons mission to Pluto, the Kuiper belt and beyond.

In July, he took part in a dive to explore the wreck of the RMS Titanic, more than 12,000 feet below the Atlantic Ocean.

Next year, he is scheduled to travel to space to conduct a suborbital research mission for NASA.

“Just like the space exploration I have been involved in during my career, our exploration of the Titanic has been influential to me as a scientist and as a human,” Stern wrote in a recent article in The Hill. “Exploration… is something that brings benefits beyond measure. After all, previous waves of exploration have generated vast economic expansions, human and societal inspiration beyond measure and even for modern democracy itself.”

If you are interested in space exploration, deep sea exploration, or primarily the future of humanity, Stern’s article is well worth a read. He notes that ocean and space exploration is poised to accelerate dramatically, thanks to private companies such as Oceangate and Virgin Galactic.

“Exploration of all kinds — from the North Pole to the South Pole, from the deep seas to the high mountains, and from our land to the moon and planets — is a uniquely human thing,” Stern wrote. “No other species on Earth explores – exploration is truly a hallmark of our species.”

new Horizons

Stern is one of several Eagle Scouts who worked on the New Horizons mission. This spacecraft produced the best images of Pluto any human had ever seen, and eventually visited Arrokoth, the most remote and primitive thing ever discovered by a spacecraft.

In 2018, I had the pleasure of interviewing Stern over the phone, and he made it very clear that his Scouting experience played a huge role in overcoming the challenges that come with space exploration.

“There were a lot of challenges,” Stern told me. It was an issue of persistence. This project has been running around the clock 52 weeks a year for over 15 years now. This requires perseverance.

“We had a lot of problems and we overcame them.”

Stern seemed especially proud of the way he and his team handled what seemed to me like a particularly stressful accident in 2015. Just 10 days before New Horizons was due to arrive at Pluto, the spacecraft has grounded.

The ground team that returned to Earth was sending instructions to the probe’s primary computer for nine days. At the same time, the computer was compressing scientific data onto its recorder.

It was more than the processor could handle, and as your home computer or smart device might do when it becomes overloaded, it malfunctioned.

In July 2015, Stern (center) celebrated with New Horizons flight controllers after they received confirmation from the spacecraft that it had successfully completed the Pluto flyby. Photo by NASA/Bill Ingalls

be ready

Stern and Glen Fountain, an electrical engineer on the New Horizons team, and, of course, also the Eagle Scout are all set up.

Long before New Horizons launches, Stern and Fountain review a list of things that can go wrong.

“We identified approximately 246 different hazards with 100 of them likely with outright emergency activities,” Fountain says. “If this happens, that’s what we’ll do.” “

Because of all this planning, they knew exactly what to do when they lost contact with the probe on July 4. They knew the computer had likely entered Safe Mode, which should prompt it to turn the antenna toward the ground and wait for further instructions.

By calculating the exact location of the probe, they knew that in a short time the probe would be available to communicate again if they looked in exactly the right place. When the time came, sure, New Horizons was ready and waiting for more instructions.

“The spacecraft and all the instruments are working flawlessly,” Stern said at a press conference a few days later. “We’ve come a long way to exploring Pluto, and all indications are that Pluto won’t let us down.”

you did not. As you read this, New Horizons is still flying in outer space. Scientists expect to be able to stay in contact with it until sometime in the 2030s, when it will likely run out of energy.

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