Rockets and Pluto

Contributed by
Jan 30, 2008

So I'm still trying to sort my life out after the craziness of last week, and the news has piled up. Here's a quick rundown of two cool things. I'll have more later.

1) SpaceX, a private space company and the first to have a (mostly) successful rocket launch, has done their first multi-engine test. Here's the deal: they have a smallish rocket called the Falcon 1. They are working on the next-generation rocket, the Falcon 9, which will be big enough to take people into orbit. The F9 will use nine engines total, wrapped around the base of the rocket. These engines, called Merlin, generate about 90,000 pounds of thrust each, so nine of them will make about 800,000 pounds of thrust. While that's only a quarter of the thrust of a single Shuttle solid rocket booster, the F9 is considerably lighter, so it'll be enough. This is very cool news! I'm a supporter of space privatization, at least for doing things like "routine" access to low Earth orbit.

2) The New Horizons probe is making its way to Pluto, the biggest of the Kuiper Belt objects (or the only planet to have been kicked out of the club, depending on how you feel). From 3.6 billion kilometers away it snapped this image of the tiny iceball (click to embiggen). It only looks like a dot because Pluto is dinky, and terribly far away; from that distance it's only about 0.1 arcseconds across. That's the size of a single Hubble camera pixel, for example. Or, to give you a better idea, it's the size a ping pong ball would look like if it were 60 kilometers away!

Emily has the scoop on this if you want more details.

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