Who said this:
And I’m floating in a most peculiar way
And the stars look very different today
If you said “Major Tom as he stepped through the spaceship door in Space Oddity, sung by David Bowie,” you would be correct. However, if the question was “Who or what said this most recently?”, the correct answer would be the New Horizons spacecraft. That’s right, New Horizons, the little probe that acts like a battery-promoting bunny as it keeps going and going and going out of the solar system, just became a mechanical Major Tom when it took pictures of the stars that really did “look very different today.”
“It’s fair to say that New Horizons is looking at an alien sky, unlike what we see from Earth.”
Doing his very best Bowie impression, Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator from Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colorado, gave an update on the spacecraft which, at a distance of 4.3 billion miles from Earth, is far beyond Major Tom’s “one hundred thousand miles.” However, like the Major, New Horizons is seeing the stars in a way no human or Earth telescope or spacecraft has ever seen them. On April 22, it pointed its long-range telescopic camera at Proxima Centauri and Wolf 359, two of the closest stars, and took multiple photographs. The images were sent to the team, which included Dr. Brian May – astrophysicist and Queen guitarist – who was astounded.
“These photographs of Proxima Centauri and Wolf 359 – stars that are well-known to amateur astronomers and science fiction aficionados alike — employ the largest distance between viewpoints ever achieved in 180 years of stereoscopy!”
Pairs of photos were converted with astro-stereoscopy into 3D images which clearly showed the two stars in a parallax shift — moving against their background of stars – that normally can’t be detected with the human eye. The press release suggests you can recreate a parallax shift for yourself by holding up a finger at arm’s length and looking at it alternately with one eye open and one closed – it appears to move even though you know it’s stationary.
Is this a big deal? Yes and yes. It’s a big deal for New Horizons which continues its stellar performance that gave us outstanding data on Uranus and Pluto before it continued to the edge of the solar system and beyond. It’s an even bigger deal for future space travelers. While terrestrial Earth explorers have long used star positions for navigation, this is the first opportunity to do the same in space with a view of the stars that’s different from the Earth view — an “alien” view..
Dr. Brian May and his band recorded “Under Pressure” with David Bowie. Had they also recorded “Space Oddity,” May’s new photos from New Horizons may have inspired him to lobby Bowie to ‘adjust’ the lyrics from “And I’m floating in a most peculiar way” to “and Proxima Centauri is floating in a most peculiar way” in honor of New Horizons. Trying to sing those odd words would likely have Bowie looking at May in a most peculiar way too.
This is Ground Control to New Horizons
You’ve really made the grade
And the papers want to know whose shirts you wear
Thanks for the inspiration, David, wherever you are.