The Little Spacecraft That Could

The Little Spacecraft That Could
Joyce Lapin and Simona Ceccarelli

From the title of this book you might expect a story somewhat similar to the Watty Piper classic The Little Engine that Could. Not so. This book is essentially a non-fiction story that, beginning in January 2006, chronicles the journey of NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft travelling towards Pluto, a destination that will take a decade to reach, by which time astronomers have down-graded Pluto from planet to dwarf planet. (This is covered in the text)

The author tells how having burst forth from Earth, the first engine is allowed to fall away leaving, encased in gold foil, the spacecraft ‘no bigger than a small piano’ whizzing through space at over 10 miles per second. (Illustrator Simona Ceccarelli bestows a big grin on the face of New Horizons as this happens and thereafter she becomes a quirky character with personality.)

Now tasked with many questions to answer: what is Pluto made of? What colour is its sky? Are there creepy-crawlies? being just three, New Horizons will fly 3 billion miles to collect close-up photographic evidence and other kinds of data and transmit it all back to scientists on Earth.

On route the spacecraft receives a massive gravity speed boost from ‘ginormous’ Jupiter, after which follows a very long period of hibernation during which time a weekly signal is sent back to Earth. Eventually on 6th December 2014, the probe reawakens and soon begins transmitting photos of Pluto,

photos that hugely enlarged scientists’ understanding of the dwarf planet and its moons. 

A few years later, on New Year’s Day 2019, New Horizons reaches another object called Arrokoth that had been discovered since her launch.  Photos of this far distant world helped scientists understand more about the solar system’s early years.  New Horizons continues to travel further out in space and the hope is there’ll be a visit to the Kuiper Belt sometime during this decade.

Altogether an absorbing book that, in addition to conveying a huge amount of information about space exploration and the solar system, makes scientific discovery highly engaging and accessible for readers who might not otherwise be inclined to explore this topic. It also includes a timeline, glossary, and resources for further investigation. 

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