“It’s about as reflective as garden variety dirt, and we were chasing it down, in the dark, at 51,000 kilometres per hour.” That’s how a Nasa scientist described the moment the New Horizons spacecraft caught up with Ultima Thule, an icy mass about twice the size of Gozo that orbits the sun at the very edge of the solar system, 6.5 billion kilometres from Earth.

An astonishing feat by any standards, and a topic we’re likely to see quite a lot of this year, as we mark the 50th anniversary of Armstrong’s giant leap. And yet, not many were impressed who did not spend Christmas in a white coat. Space exploration, it seems, no longer fires up the popular imagination.

Partly it’s a matter of scale. My calculator tells me that if it were possible to take a direct commercial flight to Ultima Thule Interplanetary Airport, and if departure date was today, the flight would land in February 3079. That’s well beyond the point at which the mind gives up trying to link numbers to experience.

If the age of exploration was about enchantment, space travel seems to me to be about its opposite

Nor does it help that the best popular description has Ultima Thule down as an ‘icy object’, and that the object’s real name is (486958) 2014 MU₆₉. Take the moon. It’s made of real stuff, waxes and wanes in love songs, and affects tides and apparently people’s moods. Plus, it was painted by Van Gogh and split by Muhammad.

The Nasa scientists, it must be said, did their best. True to the spirit of the season, they said that the shape of Ultima Thule resembled that of a snowman. Which leaves us with the pulse-pounding prospect of a snowman-like numbered object, with no eyes, nose, hat, or scarf, and languishing out of sight a zillion miles away.

That’s the exciting bit. The problem with space is that, for the most part, it’s just that. The rest is bits and pieces of icy rock and gases. To those of us whose last affair with algebra was in secondary school, outer space is essentially a dark, silent, boring place that’s not worth saving up to visit. In fact, the main attraction of space tourism is bragging rights that make skydiving and ziplines look like slippers and a pipe.

The clue’s in the name, and it’s a masterclass of wishful thinking. Two recent books that can help us are Edward Brooke-Hitching’s The Phantom Atlas and Chet Van Duzer’s Sea Monsters. While neither is about outer space, both actually are, if by a circuitous route.  

 ‘Ultima Thule’ (Farthest Thule) was the term used by the poet Virgil to describe – or, rather, to dream about – the most distant and unexplored of lands. In the early days of exploration it was imagined as a vast unknown somewhere in the far North. By naming the icy-whatever that, the scientists were implicitly drawing a parallel between the long-gone age of exploration and today’s supersized variety.

Except the parallel doesn’t quite work, because the earlier age of exploration was one in which people set about creating a geography of the marvellous.

What’s striking about medieval and Renaissance maps of the world is that there is no such thing as empty space. Where actual description failed them, the makers of these maps were all too happy to fill in the blanks with strange marine monsters.

Thus the ‘physetera’ was a sort of mutant whale that amused itself vomiting on passing ships. Mermans and mermaids had nicer habits, and there were aquatic monks and bishops whose fins and scales did not prevent them from preaching. And so on: the point is that there was no place for nothing. Which is why, when exploration got a couple of centuries wiser, the monsters were simply replaced with marvellous and exotic animals, plants and people.

All of this is in contrast to space travel. For one, the older kind of exploration was peopled. There were no probes and unmanned craft, but rather actual people marvelling at things like bioluminescence and dying of things like scurvy. More fantastically, they dreamed of the Kingdom of Prester John, El Dorado, the Garden of Eden and other peopled places that rather put a snowman-like object to shame.

Besides, if the age of exploration was about enchantment, space travel seems to me to be about its opposite. Now I know that scientists get all funny in the tummy at the thought of methane leaking out of Uranus, but for the rest of us it’s really all one big yawn.

I don’t think many people imagine that the probes are likely to be vomited on by a space physetera any time soon. Perhaps it’s a sign of the times that space travel, scientifically splendid though it might be, is largely about disenchantment.

No wonder the Chinese chose to land on the far side of the moon the other day. Rock and more bare rock, some would say, but a moon landing is different. It evokes memories of the space race, of Kennedy’s mad promise, and of a man’s small step in July 1969. While probably not much to radio home about scientifically, a moon landing – even if by an unmanned craft – is an event peopled by racing nations, on a well-lit rock we look at most days.

At which point the christening of Ultima Thule begins to seem like an act of pure optimism. What space exploration needs is a marvellous monster or, failing that, a Fata Morgana or at least a dream of one.


This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece


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