One of the innumerable joys of space is its size. Even if humanity picks up its exploration effort by many orders of magnitude, there will always be some foreign star system worth looking at a little closer. Unfortunately, its immense size is also a difficulty in exploration efforts.
The Curiosity landing on Mars just over a month ago exemplified this. The 14 minutes of lag added a surreal quality to the experience; any data that was up on the screen was in existence for many minutes prior. While the reactions to the information were fresh, it was bizarre to know that Curiosity had already touched down on the surface 14 minutes before the room at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena erupted in cheers.
Curiosity is not the only exploration effort troubled by distance. As this is being written, the Dawn probe is beginning the second leg of its journey to the asteroid belt. The Dawn mission involves sending an imaging orbiter to two major asteroids, 01 Ceres and 04 Vesta, both of which may contain answers to mysteries about the development of the solar system. Starting last year, Dawn went into orbit around Vesta and gathered geological data about one of the more curious bodies in the solar system.
The lesson here comes from how much longer the mission has. Even though Vesta and Ceres are closer than stellar neighbors, it will still take a few years for Dawn to change its trajectory so it can go to Ceres and orbit that for a year.
As Dawn is beaming back its first clear images, another brave hunk of metal and cameras will be passing Pluto. New Horizons has been journeying to the edge of the solar system to capture images of the dwarf planet for several years. When New Horizons was originally launched, Pluto was thought to have few moons, and the trajectory of the satellite was planned accordingly. Since the launch, many more moons have been found, meaning by the time New Horizons beams back its first images there is a slight chance the probe could collide with one of these newly discovered moons.
It is unfortunate that space takes so long to go through and that communication is so limited by the speed of light, but that hardly removes the potency of exploration. May the stars shine brightly in your skies.
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