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21.07.2015 Feature Article

NASA’s Pluto Probe Mission Success—The Ghanaian Connection

NASA’s Pluto Probe Mission Success—The Ghanaian Connection
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While Ghana (and Zambia) is (are) grappling with Dumsor or electricity power generation deficit and load shedding, the USA scientists at NASA and their collaborating partners at Johns Hopkins University (they built and controlled the probe’s trajectory by remote control) are celebrating once more a great scientific feat which is unparalleled in the annals of space exploration.

On 14th July, 2015 the lightweight New Horizons Pluto probe spaceship had a fly-pass of the Planet Pluto at a distance of about 7,750 miles and it relayed very close-up shots of the elusive and enigmatic planet, showing Ice Mountains towering 11,000 feet, some ice plains, and some spectacular craters which could have been formed by the impact of falling asteroids. Was that terrain terra firma or solid ground?

The New Horizons spacecraft has set a long distance record of a probe which has so far travelled more than 4 billion miles in 9 years, the farthest and the longest in duration in history, and it is billed to travel for another 18 more months at the speed of 1000 miles per minute, to the remotest extremities and recesses of our solar system. One would wonder, on what type of inexhaustible fuel has it been powered? Solar panels? Of course, it could be, but not at that fantabulous speed! What sorts of antennae are installed on it for long distance space communication? They must be extraordinarily sensitive.

There are nine planets in the solar system namely, Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto in that order from the sun. Pluto is the farthest from the sun so it must be subsumed to be very cold, while Mercury is the closest to the sun so it must be very hot there. Jupiter is the largest with many moons, and Saturn is the second largest with many kaleidoscopic rings around it. Earlier probes sent out by NASA such as Voyager and Pioneer had covered those planets and sent many close-up photos back to earth. The spherical shape of the planets is said to be due to ‘ellipsoid of revolution’ around the sun which is at the centre of our system, with the greatest magnetic pull on all the planets revolving around it in anti-clockwise direction.

Pythagoras, the ancient Greek mathematician, averred long ago that the planets make sounds as they wheel around on their orbits. He called it ‘music of the spheres or planets’. We need to ask NASA whether their New Horizons spacecraft recorded the various sounds of the planets as it flew past them on its Odyssey.

According to scientists, the universe was said to have been formed 4 billion years ago through the Big Bang explosion from a chaotic diastrophic system (cf. Stephen Hawkings). The universe is said to be made up of gases, anti-matter, solid matter like the planets, ice, asteroids, plasma, water, among other elements. Hence nature exists in four states of matter- solid, liquid, gas, and plasma. A fifth state should be dark matter or anti-matter which is still under investigation in quantum physics. Theoretical equations prove that it exists and the Collider Project experiments in Switzerland are working towards its proof.

Many mathematical equations have been evolved over the years to resolve some of these issues, notably being those of Einstein, Kepler, Isaac Newton, Leibnitz, among others. The more equations we get, the more the explanations become convoluted and complex. The Milky Way Constellation which includes our solar system is said to be still expanding towards a remote star, Vega. We need to know the elasticity of this expansion, whether there is a breaking point or not, and when. There are said to be billions of suns out there, more than we can imagine with our puny minds. Nebulae continue to be formed by nuclear and atomic fusion and fission. Some stars die to become dwarfs.

From my elementary school geographical knowledge, the circumference of the earth is 25,000 miles or 40,000 kilometres. Therefore this divided by 24 hours gives us 1041 miles per hour (mph) as the angular velocity or speed of the earth rotating on its axis per every 15 degrees. The New Horizon spaceship or spacecraft is said to be cruising at 1000 miles per minute (according to BBC), which translates to 60,000 miles per hour. What supersonic speed! This means that it can circumnavigate or travel round the earth once in every 25 minutes, or 2.4 times in one hour. The earth being a sphere of 360 degrees, it means one degree subtends 69.44 miles or 112 kilometres at its centre.

Therefore the distance travelled by New Horizons Spaceship in 9 years is the number of minutes in 9 years multiplied by its speed of 1000 miles per minute (remember Distance equals Time taken to travel times Speed). This is equal to 9x365x24x60x1000 or 4,730,400,000 miles (4.73 billion miles!). What happens to a human being on board New Horizons, travelling at such a supersonic speed in 9 years? Apart from weightlessness, what will be the effect of loss of gravity on internal body organs? What about falling into a coma or stupor or centrifugal comatose?

According to Einstein, when a body or mass travels at supersonic speed it ceases to exist. This is according to his Theory of Relativity of E= mc2 or Energy equals mass multiplied by the velocity of light squared. The speed of light is 144,000 kilometres or 90,000 miles per second. So in one hour, light travels 324,000,000 (324 million) miles or 518,400,000 (518.4 million) kilometres! One Light year is equal to this speed of 324 million miles per hour multiplied by the number of hours in one year. We have 365 x 24 hours (87600 hours. Thus, one light year comes to 2.73824 trillion miles! The closest star to the earth is Proxima Centuari, and it is many light years away. That is why it is said that the way to the stars is steep. When can we build a craft with that speed capacity of light to traverse such astronomical distances? Is it necessary?

We can as well transmit a beam of light to whichever destination we want to go to at no fuel cost or vehicle cost. Superstition has it that there are super-intelligent Alien beings out there in space which have the ability of accelerating at instantaneous instant. To me, this ability is possessed only by angels of God Almighty, the Tetragramatron or the Three-in-one Godhead, whose angels travel interstellar distances in instant moments such that distance does not exist, therefore time and speed are inconsequential. Well, I am not a scientist and I am speaking like the economist and layman that I am.

There is a controversy between the creationists on the one hand and the Darwinian evolutionists on the other hand. The former believe in the orderly biblical account of creation in Genesis chapter one in the bible, while the latter believe in the chaos-based scientific explanation of creation, partially from Darwin’s idea of mutation and evolution, and partially from the physicists’ reconstruction theory of the Big Bang.

This great debate of the fact-value dichotomy rages on. Perhaps, NASA’s Pluto Odyssey will put this controversy to rest by bringing out all the facts since the probe is said to have travelled the whole gamut of the length and breadth of our Milky Way Galaxy. Perhaps, the mission can help us unravel the phenomenon of global warming which is creating havoc and threatening our very survival as humans. Perhaps too, we shall get some answers to the UFO (Unidentified Flying Objects or Flying Saucers) mysteries, myths, and conundrum.

One may imagine how the New Horizons Spacecraft probe was built and equipped with novel scientific equipment ranging from powerful cameras and Hubble-like telescopes, spectrometers, sensors, advanced radio telecommunications transmission equipment, advanced computers, advanced thermometers and thermostats, among others. In the 80s and 90s we had the Voyagers, Pioneers, and the like but none of them comes closer to the lightweight New Horizons Spacecraft probe built by the scientists and engineers at Johns Hopkins University. The excitement which this mission has generated around the world is comparable to the Apollo 11 Mission in 1968 which put Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins on the moon. By then, there was no internet so news circulation was limited to radio, newspaper, TV, word of mouth, and snail mail.

A spacecraft is said to be a complete stand-alone, self-contained system which is self-regulatory, based on steady-state systems of homeostasis, cybernetics, and a completely closed system with no output and input from its environment. Such systems have a finite life as they eventually die off. They are hermetic as they have no intercourse with their environment.

It will be intriguing to know the type of advanced turbojet propulsion the New Horizons Spacecraft used, which fuel it went on, whether uranium or helium gas or any other long-lasting fuel or hybrid fuel, or it fed on plasma or whether it was electrically powered. Only scientists like our own Ghanaian NASA scientists like Dr Trebi-Ashitey Ollennu, Dr Ave Klutse, Dr Isaiah Blankson, and back home, our own mathematical physicists and scientists like Prof Francis Kofi Ampaney Allotey, who have knowledge of aerodynamics, aeronautics, and astronautic engineering, and they can explain to us the nitty-gritty of it all. I wonder how many pixels camera sharpness was carried on board, what metals, plastics, fibre optics, and other materials were used to help the spacecraft withstand the arduousness and stress of this space Odyssey. Perhaps some of our science nerds on this forum can enlighten us on such matters.

Since it was an unmanned mission, there were no human safety concerns, except perhaps if the mission had gone awry, concerns could have been how to redirect the debris re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere, and safely into the ocean. However, still there could be concerns of making sure mathematical precision was attained to get the craft on the right course, taking into account the periodicity of the planets on their various orbits, and the remote-control via communication from the earth space centre should have been super flawless. The robotics should have been superb as well, as the in-built controls from computers should be wizardly intelligent. There should have been astronomical calculations of interstellar distances, exact location of orbits of planets, navigational and sensor systems which should know when the probe which was on auto-pilot, should change course, among other computations, considerations, and complex manoeuvres. The computer programmers should have been innovative and savvy.

Dr Isaiah Blankson attended Mfantsipim College in Cape Coast and went to do his degrees at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) at Cambridge, Boston in the USA where he obtained his undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in Aeronautic, Aerodynamic, and Astronautic Engineering. He is said to be a super-mathematical genius, as he has won numerous prestigious awards in the USA. He is currently at NASA Glenn, where he specialises in hypersonic and supersonic turbojet propulsion, meant to break the sound barrier of Mach 7. He also works with the air-force in developing supersonic and safe fighter jets. He worked for General Electric Corporation before going to NASA. At a point in time, he was in charge of a project worth 28 million dollars. He is a senior strategist at NASA and would or could have had an impact on New Horizons propulsion system

Another Ghanaian at NASA is Dr Ave Klutse who attended Adisadel College before going to the USA to complete his engineering degrees in New York. He specialises in remote control of spaceships, and he has remotely flown spacecrafts from Mission control centres at Cape Carnival, Florida, and Houston. He is said to be a NASA strategist who is currently working on planned manned missions to Mars and the Moon by 2020.

Dr Trebi-Ashitey Ollennu specialises in Robotics at NASA. He designs and operates robotic arms and lunar landing crafts which are used to scoop samples from the lunar and other landed surfaces in unmanned missions. The robots retrieve samples into the landing craft, and get them back to the spaceship. It requires engineering innovation and flexibility, prevoyance, scenario planning, and in-built Artificial Intelligence to execute some of those complex manoeuvres. He is more or less a computer whiz-kid with speciality in robotics.

Dr Nii Quaynor has transformed the internet in Africa as he was the first African to set up internet service in Africa. He went to Achimota and Adisadel, and then went on to Dartmouth University in the USA. He lectured at Cape Coast University and chaired or served on many UN technical committee boards. His contributions have helped us all to connect to the world through the internet.

Dr T.A. Mensah has patented many inventions in the US and he is one of the leading experts in the world on fibre optics. After his degree at Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST), he went to Sorbonne, Paris, France to read for his master’s degree in material science and Chemical Engineering, and later went to the USA to Princeton. His fibre optics innovations have helped to revolutionize telecommunications, and his inventions are used in the US Air-force to build strong fighter planes.

There is also one Dr Magbonlurin who has patented medical instruments which have a bearing on space science. At one time he was shortlisted to be an astronaut but he failed the test. All these Ghanaians and others are our Ghanaian connection to NASA.

I am sure that there are many more Ghanaians out there in the Diaspora who are doing wonderful things in their own small microcosms. Whether we like it or not, the success at NASA is a success for the whole of mankind because the newest or latest technologies which were used on the Pluto probe and fly-pass vehicle will eventually filter down into the commercial world, and they will help us solve some of the myriad problems of this world, such as Dumsor or electricity blues in Ghana and Zambia. The cell phone you are using now, the high definition camera on your smart phone, satellite imaging of dwindling resources and prospecting of new minerals, aeroplane and motor vehicle engine propulsion - all these have benefitted from NASA’s space programmes as they directly rub off on our day to day welfare.

In conclusion, we are very proud of NASA and the Johns Hopkins University teams behind New Horizons’ monumental, historic, and humungous success. We congratulate them for pulling off a first in space exploration. The knowledge gained from this mission will revolutionize our thinking, and utterly transform our knowledge of the origins of the universe. This successful mission will impact heavily on knowledge areas such as material science, turbojet propulsion, photography, astronomy, telecommunications, aeronautics, robotics, computer science; among others. We are equally happy and proud to note the Ghanaian and African connections at NASA. In fact, in a globalised world, we are all connected for good or for bad.

Dr Kwesi Atta Sakyi, BA, MPA, DBA

Kwesi Atta Sakyi
Kwesi Atta Sakyi, © 2015

The author has 51 publications published on Modern Ghana.Column: KwesiAttaSakyi

Disclaimer: "The views/contents expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of Modern Ghana. Modern Ghana will not be responsible or liable for any inaccurate or incorrect statements contained in this article."

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