As I write this, I am watching live video feed of the final burn and approach of a probe called Messenger.
Fifteen years ago someone decided that we needed to get a better look at the planet Mercury, closest planet to our sun. Instead of moping about how far away it was, and how hard it would be, that person instead convinced a bunch of other people that this would be a good idea. Those people planned, designed and worked for nine years. In that time they not only created a probe capable of giving them answers to the questions they had, but also give them the best chance at getting answers to questions they didn’t yet know to ask. On top of that, the probe had to accept instructions from millions of miles away, communicate information over that same distance in a useful manner, and carry out some functions automatically without any human interaction. And all of that instrumentation had to fit into a package that weighed only 100lbs, and took up the space of a medium-sized steamer trunk.
At the same time the probe was in development, another bunch of people were figuring out a launch and delivery system. They created incredibly complex machines that not only lifted the probe safely off our planet, but moved it over 4.9 billion miles of distance and placed the probe in orbit of its destination, protecting it from a hostile environment the entire way.
And yet a third team used complex mathematics to determine the best way for all of this intricate machinery to make the journey, arriving where it needed to arrive safe and sound. And all of this before the probe even left the planet.
Six years ago, Messenger launched (those two words sum up an event so amazingly complex it boggles my mind). But the work didn’t stop there. Talented people would now get up in the morning or afternoon or evening, drink a coffee, eat something and then head in to work. At this work they would monitor the probe’s progress, shepherding it on its journey through our solar system. They would send signals to a probe that was millions, then tens of millions, then hundreds of millions of miles away. These messages had to be timed to account for signal lag, and to allow the craft to precisely carry out six planetary and five deep-space manoeuvres, so that the probe could arrive at the location their math told them Mercury would be. For six years this went on, while you and I worked at our jobs, played games, hung out with friends, slept and generally carried on.
Today, I’m watching the live feed from a device conceived of fifteen years ago, launched six years ago and arriving at Mercury…right…now.
If that doesn’t boggle your mind, consider this. I am watching this because we figured out how to turn visual signals into electronic signals and then back again. We developed a way to transmit those signals over varying distances, with or without direct connections. I am taking advantage of this technology on a device which computes and stores information at blinding speeds, with an interface simple enough that a non-engineer, non-scientist such as myself can use it to play Bejewelled. And write this blog post. And watch a creation of human genius pull off what might as well be a miracle millions of miles away. A distance so vast, by the way, that the feed is already eight minutes old by the time we get it. As I watch the craft is fine. But eight minutes from now it could crash. Or eight minutes from now. Or now. Or now…
Even more amazing? This is not the first time we have pulled off something like this. Or even the tenth or twentieth time.
We live in an age of wonders. This is not an original sentiment and I have certainly not restated it in a particularly new or enlightening way. But regardless of whether I do it well, I think it still needs to be said: we live in an age of wonders. As a species we are capable of achieving, and dream of achieving, things that will elevate us, that will make us better than we are. We can be great.
Take a moment to think about that.
Tonight, Messenger is safely in orbit around Mercury. Congratulations to everyone at NASA and the Applied Physics Laboratory.
Here are a few other things to look at:
– a great article about rediscovering your inner geek
– I present without comment: Tonight I’m Frakking You
– this Sunday is the Edmonton Collectible Toy and Comic Show. Come out and meet Levar Burton and have a geeky good time!
– the Facebook page is up for Edmonton’s 2011 Can’t Stop the Serenity screening. If you ain’t there, yer just a Ai Chr Jze Se Duh Fohn Diang Gho. You have been warned.
‘Til next time, keep looking at the stars!