We, the idiots of Earth

Shiv Aroor
Shiv AroorJul 17, 2015 | 11:17

We, the idiots of Earth

Just about the time NASA's New Horizons spacecraft was preparing to begin final approach for its historic flyby of Pluto this week, an event of infinitely greater significance was playing out three billion miles away: Lalu Prasad was calling for an all-Bihar shutdown, demanding the release of caste data in the National Census.

As NASA scientists held their breath for the final minutes of what promised to change forever humanity's understanding of the solar system and universe, Lalu Prasad warned that he would begin a hunger strike on July 26 unless the government forked out the caste juice.



Eight minutes later, scientists at the NASA control centre cautiously exhaled as they received a radio signal, one that took 4.5 hours to make the journey back to earth, assuring them that all systems were ready for the epoch-breaking space feat - one that would take stubborn perceptions of our galaxy and turn them on their head. Little did NASA know that an event was playing out that same moment which cruelly showed the Pluto mission its real place in our scheme of things: Nitish Kumar called on Arvind Kejriwal to inform him that he supported the latter's statehood demand for Delhi. That poor spacecraft didn't know what hit it. And it had a job to do.

The nifty little probe, powered by hydrazine monopropellant and 16 thrusters engineered to transport it all the way across the solar system, wasn't to be deterred. But just as New Horizons entered that final bit of swoop that would take it just 7,800 miles from Pluto and affording for all humanity a most awe-inspiring sense of a world never truly understood before, it received a career-defeating body-blow: From London, N Srinivasan informed journalists that he had nothing to say about the Lodha Committee's recommendations on the IPL corruption since he had "nothing to do with Chennai Super Kings." The ripples from that statement should have been enough to rock that poor space probe off its trajectory, but even after a nine years voyage into space, its radioisotope thermoelectric generator had just enough life left in it to stay on course. But it was a near thing. What should be been a peaceful flyby, unhindered by the all-consuming silence of outer space, turned out to be rudely interrupted by an interjection of grave import. Journalists had just reported something that questioned the nature of our existence itself: Mirwaiz Umar Farooq had revealed that he had not yet taken a call on attending the Eid Milan at the Pakistan high commission in Delhi. Let me go over that again slowly. He had not yet taken a call. At that precise moment, New Horizons' Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager, simply one of the world's most advanced space cameras, began snapping off photographs of Pluto and its moon Charon. Photographs of such unbelievable resolution (and therefore, file-size) that NASA has had to postpone downloading the actual files for a quieter day in the future.


And then it was time for the actual Pluto flyby. The dwarf planet lurched up towards the tiny probe, baring secrets that would only moments later send hundreds of scientists at NASA into a level of ecstasy that only the discovery of something utterly new can bring.

Something uncontaminated. Something far enough away for us to be so brilliantly wrong about it. Something so phenomenally new that scientists actually celebrated having their age-old speculations bent out of shape.


And that's when the hammer fell. A finishing move that all but destroyed New Horizons and its priceless secrets: it was revealed that Prime Minister Narendra Modi would be giving the president's annual iftar party a miss. For the second time. Three billion miles out, the true import of the prime minister's ignoble gesture might have shaken rock. And if it did, New Horizons' ultraviolet imaging spectrometer would have been too busy recording the icy signatures of secret mountains never before known to have existed near Pluto's equator.

As the spacecraft completed its flyby, and began receding from Pluto and out into the Kuiper Belt, a mega asteroid-belt beyond the planets containing wordlessly ancient debris from the formation of the solar system, the engineering marvel of its thrusters fired to keep New Horizons' eyes fixed on Pluto, affording a final look before entering, well, the unknown.



The spacecraft swivelled to point its antenna at Earth and make possible the most valuable space transmission in years, a transmission you didn't need to be a scientist to be overwhelmed to tears by. As that era-defining transmission rode the Deep Space Network past the orbit of Jupiter towards Earth, there was an another era-defining event going down 450 million miles away: From Mumbai, Raj Kundra had tweeted that he was disappointed with the IPL verdict.

Let's not shortchange New Horizons on the awesome earthly odds it has transcended to bring Pluto home. The genre-defining 1979 blockbuster Alien was promoted with the unforgettable tagline: In space, no one can hear you scream. Thirty-six years later, there's new meaning. But as New Horizons takes its first steps into even blacker space, here's a polite reminder. In April next year, another NASA spacecraft Juno will arrive in orbit around Jupiter, the largest planet in our system, on a mission to unlock secrets of planet formation that will add large pieces to the unending human jigsaw of the universe's origins. We should ensure Lalu Prasad has the day off.

Last updated: July 17, 2015 | 11:57
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