More than a year ago we reported on the launch of the New Horizons probe to Pluto. Back then Pluto was a planet, before the IAU reassigned it to the "Pathetic Little Iceball" category.
Today, New Horizons swings by Jupiter to pick up a gravitational energy boost on the way to Pluto. It's worth the detour: the Jupiter encounter is adding nearly 20 percent to the probe's speed. The distances in the outer Solar System are such that the extra velocity more than makes up for taking a more roundabout route.
To get as much extra oomph from the big planet, New Horizons is going to swing closer to Jupiter than any previous mission -- less than 5 million kilometers. The controllers at JPL get to try out the instruments and gather a little data during the flyby. Then everything gets put in sleep mode for the next eight years.
Just to give you some sense of the scale of the Solar System, the probe will be moving at about 20 kilometers per second -- roughly 100 times the speed of sound -- for eight years. Even the data it beams home by radio will take five hours to make the trip!
I find myself at a loss to understand how anyone can dismiss this as wasteful or pointless, yet devote their time and attention to anything as genuinely trivial as sports or entertainment -- both of which cost considerably more on an annual basis than New Horizons.