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Podcast: How A Postage Stamp Inspired The Journey To Pluto

03/08/2015 8:27 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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This July 13, 2015 image provided by NASA shows Pluto, seen from the New Horizons spacecraft. The United States is now the only nation to visit every single planet in the solar system. Pluto was No. 9 in the lineup when New Horizons departed Cape Canaveral, Fla, on Jan. 19, 2006 (NASA via AP)

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Image credit: USPS

On 15 July 2015, New Horizons, a spacecraft built by the Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) at John Hopkins University, flew past Pluto. As the New Horizons science team erupted in proud cheers, there were two other scientists who were probably feeling just as proud. The story of Robert Staehle and Stacy Weinstein-Weiss, from NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL), is just as riveting as that of APL's Alan Stern and his team. In this episode of The Intersection, Samanth Subramanian chronicles their journey.

In 1991, the US Postal Service (USPS) released a set of stamps, one each for every planet of our solar system. But, there was one hitch. Since Pluto was yet unexplored, no one knew how the dwarf planet (then a planet) looked like. The result was a greenish-blue circle that was labelled Pluto and the words "Not Yet Explored".

You might find it unbelievable that this seemingly trivial phrase led to one of the greatest cosmic journeys of our times. But, here's Robert on how the stamp affected scientists. In a journal article called To Pluto by the way of a postage stamp, he writes, "Taunted by words on a postage stamp, a group of mission designers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory is struggling to find a cheap way to go to Pluto."

In the podcast, Stacy recounts a water-cooler-like interaction with Robert, when he walked into her office after the USPS unveiled the stamps. She tells Samanth, "He (Robert) had his stamps, and I had my stamps and we were looking at poor little Pluto, not yet explored, and we said, gosh we've got to do something about that!"

The duo started working together on an idea that Stacy had already been working on when the stamps were released. They solved old challenges, and faced new ones. Finally, NASA decided to invite competitive bids for the project. APL won the bid, took over the project, built New Horizons and sent it on its way to Pluto.

This episode features in-depth reporting on the challenges that the journey to Pluto posed. From its 200-year-long orbit around the sun, which made timing key, to the sheer distance, which led to an innovative solution by Stacy & Robert, Samanth brings to you interesting facets of the journey to Pluto.

And, there's a poetic end to the entire story - apart from carrying the ashes of the astronomer Clyde Tombaugh, who discovered Pluto, New Horizons also took with it a copy of the tiny 29-cent postage stamp that started it all.

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