In a few days the historic first reconnaissance of the Solar System will be complete. Let us hope that it is not the end of our exploration of the Solar System that it is not the beginning of the end, not the end of the beginning but the beginning of the beginning (not the best turn of phrase but it’ll do for now).
Mercury, Venus, the Moon, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn were all known to our ancestors. So it only matters when they were first visited by spacecraft.
- 1957 — Earth
- 1959 — Moon
- 1962 — Venus
- 1964 — Mars
- 1972 — Jupiter
- 1973 — Saturn
But for those discovered in historical times what is the shortest time from discovery to first visit?
- Uranus discovered 1781, first visited by a spacecraft in 1986, 205 year gap.
- Ceres discovered 1801, first visited by a spacecraft in 2015, 214 years.
- Vesta discovered 1807, first visited by a spacecraft in 2011, 204 years.
- Neptune discovered 1846, first visited by a spacecraft in 1989, 143 years.
- Pluto discovered in 1930, first visited by a spacecraft in 2015. From discovery to first visit by a spacecraft it only took 85 years for Pluto.
I suppose I could throw Charon into the mix. Charon was discovered in 1978, scant 37 years after it’s discovery because Pluto-Charon are properly a double (dwarf) planet.
Regardless of what it’s classified as, a dwarf planet or planet that many in the public still want to call it that, Pluto has now become a place, a world in its own right. Just as Comet 67P (Churyumov-Gerasimenko) has become a world since Rosetta and Philae have visited it.
Our reconnaissance of the Solar System started in 1962 with a flyby of Venus, a scant five years after the first satellite was launched in orbit about the Earth. The first wave of recon could be said to end this year in 2015 with the visit of Pluto by New Horizons.
It will take a few months before all the data New Horizons collected to be beamed back to Earth but no doubt we’ll see a few stunning images shortly after this historic flyby. I recall reading about possible targets post Pluto that New Horizons might be aimed at. I’ll have to check up on that.