New Horizons

For a while now, I’ve been wanting to start a second track of weekly content on ribbonfarm, featuring short, dense pieces in text or visual form. I can’t think of a better way to kick that off than with an image more dense with significance than almost any image I’m likely to see in my lifetime.


In this one picture of Pluto, taken just ahead of the (now completed, with data streaming back) New Horizons flyby, is encapsulated a few centuries of telescopic astronomy, just over a century of flight, and just over half a century of spaceflight. This picture also marks an end and a beginning. Along with the Rosetta comet lander mission and the Dawn asteroid mission (which returned images of Ceres), New Horizons marks the tail end of a basic exploration of the solar system. At the same time, we are at the beginning of a serious exploration of the universe beyond, thanks to early 21st century planet hunters and the Kepler mission (an excellent summer read on the subject is Five Billion Years of Solitude by Lee Billings) and the upcoming Hubble replacement, the James Webb telescope.

We are exploring beyond new horizons and living once again in brave new times, where men are real men, women are real women, and small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri are real small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. Counter-point:

    “The surface of another planet won’t look like a California studio backlot or the Vasquez Rock formations where the original Star Trek shot so often on location — it will look to us like Antarctica, or the pock-marked surface of the moon, or the Mariana Trench, or Hell. It’s a task that will be almost unthinkably, unfathomably difficult — a lunatic task, which Western civilization has not only convinced itself is its destiny but which has been used to justify all manner of short-sighted, anti-ecological behaviors in the meantime. We’re gleefully destroying our only good home, pretending we’ve got someplace else to go.” —

    • Yeah, I saw that article. It’s basically a dressed-up elitist hand-wringing version of the “why are we going to Mars when there are starving kids in Africa!!” false dichotomy. Certainly, for some, the narrative of space exploration may be deluded fantasies anchored in avoidance of terrestrial problems, but that is a peripheral point with regard to the motivation.

      Basically, a bs zero-sum argument. For the bread-and-circuses crowd, the two may be coupled, but space exploration and terrestrial stewardship are basically unrelated issues in my mind. Also, apropos, my Aeon article, Deep Play

      • You’re just seeing the bs you want to see. My interpretation was that it’s supportive of probes costing billions, even trillions, of dollars, as long as we face the reality that we’re all likely going to be real men and women right here on Earth for a long time, and small furry creatures on Alpha Centauri will remain there. At best you’ll have a 1e-10 baud internet between the two.

        What you call the peripheral point seems to me what it was about. You’re just twisting it to what you want to think about.

        • “as long as we face the reality that we’re all likely going to be real men and women right here on Earth for a long time”

          That’s not an economic problem. It’s a psychological/sociological problem. How is it any different from trillions spent on organized religion that almost certainly distracts way more from the here-and-now problems?

          In fact, good histories can and have been written, analyzing how the world has been shaped by using the afterlife as a political-psychological reason to ignore mortal life here on earth.

          Lifeboat thinking will always find very expensive forms of expression among humans, whether or not there are space missions to project our delusions on.

          Sci-fi too has always had both parallel strands of writing: the lifeboat kind and the realist kind (Clarke’s books were less lifeboat and more gritty).

          Also, as a matter of history, the space program owed far more to the nuclear missile race of the Cold War than to lifeboat-fantasies or science objectives. The lifeboat angle was projected onto it by a strand of sci-fi, but aside from Apollo, no space program has displayed much of a lifeboat sensibility.

          Now detection of extra-terrestrial life… that’s a different question. If there really ARE small furry creatures out there, a 1e-10 baud connection can achieve a lot…

          • Absolutely. But your rhetoric about how we can now all go back to being real men and women again is contributing to the psychological/sociological problem you mentioned.

            I think I’m less excited than you about New Horizons, about seeing it as some sort of watershed. But that’s not saying much :)

          • Dude, that was an ironic Hitchhiker’s Guide reference, not an unironic line :D

            The context of the original quote is actually distinctly anti-lifeboat.

            “Far back in the mists of ancient time, in the great and glorious days of the former Galactic Empire, life was wild, rich, and on the whole, tax-free. In those days, spirits were brave; the stakes were high; men were real men, women were real women, and small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri were real small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri. And all dared to brave unknown terrors to do mighty deeds to boldly split infinitives that no man had split before. And thus was the Empire forged. Many men, of course, became extremely rich. But this was perfectly natural and nothing to be ashamed of, because no one was really poor – at least no one worth speaking of. And for these extremely rich merchants life eventually became rather dull and it seemed that none of the worlds they settled on was entirely satisfactory: either the climate wasn’t quite right in the later part of the afternoon, or the day was half an hour too long, or the sea was just the wrong shade of pink. And thus were created the conditions for a staggering new form of industry: custom-made luxury planet building. The home of this industry was the planet Magrathea, where vast hyperspatial engineering works were constructed to suck matter through white holes in space and form it into dream planets, lovingly made to meet the exacting standards of the galaxy’s richest men. And so successful was this venture that very soon Magrathea itself became the richest planet of all time, and the rest of the galaxy was reduced to abject poverty. And so the system broke down, the empire collapsed, and a long, sullen silence settled over the galaxy, disturbed only by the pen-scratchings of scholars as they laboured into the night over smug little treatises on the value of a planned political economy. In these enlightened days, of course, no one believes a word of it. Meanwhile, on Zaphod Beeblebrox’s ship, deep in the darkness of the Horsehead Nebula…”

          • Ah :) Carry on then.

  2. Love your DNA references :-)

  3. Look, smart guys and gals need projects like New Horizons. Tetris isn’t going to cut it. I couldn’t care less about Pluto, but I don’t see this program as any less legitimate than WPA murals in the ’30s or NEA grants for poetry slams today. And it is a hell of a lot easier to obtain collateral benefits from a project like New Horizons than it is from shipping food aid to starving Africans that is interdicted and exploited by African elites.