New Horizons: Can one amazing robotic spacecraft redeem humanity?

It's an amazing technical feat: a robotic spacecraft that has successfully traveled more than three billion miles and phoned home.


In so many ways, humanity sucks. Whether it's crime or terrorism or pollution or politics or racism or religious oppression or war or witch hunts, our species often distinguishes itself by taking the lesser path, one of dishonor and foolishness, shame and stupidity.

But sometimes... sometimes we get it right. Sometimes, we rise above our base nature and soar to amazing heights. Sometimes, we show what we could become if we get our act together.

Yesterday was one of those times. Yesterday, humanity celebrated an astonishing technical achievement by a dedicated team of determined professionals. Yesterday, the New Horizons spacecraft sent back data from the dwarf planet Pluto.

It's hard to understand the scope of this achievement, but I'll try to put it in perspective.

Earth is 7920 miles in diameter (12,700 kilometers). If you stacked 378,787 Earths on top of each other, you'd just about reach Pluto. Pluto is three billion miles away.

Three. Billion. Miles.

On January 19, 2006, a thousand pound spacecraft was placed on top of an Atlas V rocket and blasted into space. It's been out there for nine years, five months, and 25 days.

All on its own.

We are talking about what is essentially a space-faring robot, traveling through the cold of space, sling-shotting off of Jupiter, managing to avoid debris, and piloting its way all the way to Pluto.

Three. Billion. Miles.

Computing power on this thing is an old 12 MHz MIPS R3000 CPU. A Mac II from 1990 had more CPU power, but the R3000 inside New Horizons is very low power and radiation hardened.

You think your cellular service is spotty if you get a little too far from a tower? Imagine what it's like to send a signal back from 3 billion miles. New Horizons sends data at about 1 kbit/s and it takes four and half hours for those bits to make it from Pluto to Planet Earth.

Did I mention we have pictures? We have clear pictures of a mini-planet that's barely visible to our best telescopes. At the top of this article, you can see a picture of Pluto. It's still a relatively low resolution picture, because the best images are still coming back to us, one kbit-per-second at a time.

Three. Billion. Miles.

A group of primates living on this small blue rock built a robotic spacecraft that survived for almost ten years in the frigid cold of space and made it to the edge of the solar system.

We built that. We made it. It made it.

Most of the time I'm telling you about how reprehensible our species is, about the idiocies of our politicians and the dangers of cyberwarfare.

Not this time. This time I have the incredible pleasure of telling you three words: we done good.

Can one amazing robotic spacecraft redeem humanity? Probably not. But it's sure as heck something to be proud of, amazed by, and inspired by.

If we could do that with 2006 technology, imagine what we could do now.

Three. Billion. Miles.