Get Ready to Explore Pluto!

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On July 14, 2015 the New Horizons spacecraft will make the historic first encounter with the only major solar system body that has not been explored robotically – Pluto. Dave Schlom, host of NSPR’s The Blue Dot Report, wrote this essay to get us ready for the most exciting space event in decades.

On August 25, 1989 I was camped out. Or rather camped in. Thanks to help from staff and faculty in the Geosciences Department at CSU Chico, I had arranged to spend the night in one of the geology labs on the second floor of the Physical Sciences Building. This was pre world wide web and I wanted to follow the final planetary encounter of Voyager 2 as it prepared to speed through the Neptune system. The P.S. building had a satellite dish that was tuned to the NASA feed. In the wee hours of the morning, by myself, I lay out on a sleeping bag spread out on one of the lab tables between the gas outlets for the Bunsen burners.

The images started coming in after midnight, beautiful blue Neptune and the object I was most interested in – it’s strange moon Triton. The images of the moon were intriguing: it looked like a strange mouldy cantaloupe and my first thought was that this was an active world with some kind of crustal activity. As the morning light flooded the classroom, I shut off the monitor and sadly thought to myself that I would never again see the first exploration images of a major solar system body. Voyager’s planetary encounters were over and all of the planets had been surveyed. Except for one. Pluto.

A that time there were no plans to send a spacecraft to Pluto but that would change in the 1990s as planetary scientists led by Dr. Alan Stern began to plan a mission that would become known as New Horizons. Their plans came to fruition in January 2006 when the spacecraft, armed with the most advanced suite of instruments ever sent to bear on a planetary encounter, launched from Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

New Horizons is the fastest spacecraft ever sent from Earth travelling at 38,000 miles per hour. But it is a long way to Pluto – nearly 40 times farther from the Sun than Earth is – and now, after it’s nearly decade long trip – it is about to make an historic first encounter with the Ninth Planet. Yes. I called it a planet. Most members of the planetary science community consider Pluto to be a “planet.” It’s a silly term to begin with – it just means “wanderer” in ancient greek. The planets move with respect to the background stars that appear fixed to us. Pluto has an odd orbit, it isn’t a gas giant and it is very far away. But it has a suite of interesting moons and an atmosphere. It’s a lot more interesting place than Mercury. So call it what you will, Kuiper Belt object, Dwarf Planet, World, etc…it’s a damned fascinating place and we are about to see it up close for the first time in history and likely the last time in most of our lifetimes.

Pluto was discovered by a farm boy, Clyde Tombaugh, in 1930. He came cheap to the Lowell Observatory and was put to the tedious task of searching for “Planet X” with an instrument called a blink comparator. He had to painstakingly look at two sets of plates, taken at different times, and search for an object that moved against the background stars. There is no way I would have the patience to do that. But Clyde did. And he found Pluto, which was not named for the Disney dog but rather was named by an English school girl named Venetia Burney for a Roman God that could remain hidden at will. The astronomers at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff also liked the name because the first two letters happened to be the initials of their founder and the man that began the search for Planet X – Percival Lowell.

New Horizons has many instruments but my particular favorites are named Ralph and Alice. They are the cameras and spectrographic instruments that will image the world and tell us all about its composition. Pluto is bright compared to its large moon Charon, which is a darker gray. What will we see on these strange new worlds? That’s the best part – we don’t know!!!

But I will bet you this: there will be mysteries and surprises that will keep planetary scientists busy for years. Principal Investigator and Pluto raconteur Dr. Alan Stern and his team of planetary scientists at the Southwest Research Institute coupled with engineers from the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins have been preparing for years for an encounter that will last mere hours as their spacecraft speeds through the Pluto system. Pluto and Charon will be imaged, as well as Pluto’s smaller moon’s Nix, Styx, Hydra and Kerberos (all mythical names associated with the god of the underworld).

We will get the first really high resolution looks at Pluto on July 13 and more in the days to follow. But because of the massive amount of data that will be rapidly collected by the instrumentation aboard New Horizons, it will take a year to download all of the images and information. We will be learning a lot of cool things about Pluto and its moons in the next year and likely for years to come.

When we explore new worlds and discover new features, we also get the fun task of naming them. And names for Pluto will be especially fun. Many of the names have been solicited from the public but will ultimately be decided on by the International Astronomical Union. The same fun group that decided to demote Pluto from planetary status in 2006. Name categories will be pretty conventional: historic space missions, spacecraft, scientists, explorers and the like and of course mythical names associated with the underworld.

For the largest moon Charon, things get way cooler. Those names could include fictional travelers, destinations and vessels. Mordor seems appropriate. Shire Hills anyone? How about Spock and Uhura? Enterprise heights? Tardis Valley? Can’t wait!

A lot of people think that Pluto must be a very dark and cold place. Of course it is, but not as dark as you might think. To get an idea of what it would be like at noon on Pluto, go out just before 9 p.m. this week and that twilight will give you a good idea of what it would be like on Pluto. There is even a social media NASA site this called Pluto Time, where you take a picture of your neck of the woods at that moment and post it. Check it out here: http://solarsystem.nasa.gov/plutotime/

Unlike when I watched the Voyager encounter at Neptune in 1989, we can all share in this great journey through the web and on social media. I follow New Horizons on Twitter @NewHorizons2015 and of course you can also follow me as I tweet about what we are seeing @DaveSchlom.

You can also go to the main mission websites and the main NASA site listed below. Let’s all explore Pluto together! We won’t ever get another first reconnaissance of a planet (said it again – don’t tell the IAU cops or Neil deGrasse Tyson!) until we start exploring planets around other stars. And that will have to wait for many generations…

New Horizons Mission websites:

https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/newhorizons/main/index.html

http://pluto.jhuapl.edu/

Pluto itself will have pretty straight-laced names for its newly discovered geological features. The categories include historical space missions, spacecraft, scientists and explorers, as well as beings, locations and characters from myths pertaining to the underworld -- a throwback to Pluto, the Roman god of hell. Sputnik and Hercules are both fair game for whatever those mysterious black spots on Pluto are.

But Charon -- Pluto's largest moon -- is where things get really fun.

The New Horizons team has proposed categories including fictional travelers, destinations and vessels. That means we could have Tardis and Serenity craters! Spock and Uhura mountains! A Shire, a Mordor, and a Tattoine all on one moon.

David Schlom
Dave Schlom is a life long astronomer and science educator. He is entering his third decade of science teaching at Corning Union High School. He's a seasoned science journalist in print but his first love is radio. He has hosted NSPR's The Blue Dot Report since 2007. He lives in Red Bluff with his gorgeous math teacher and two K9 best friends.
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8 Responses

  1. Melanie says:

    Very cool! On Wednesday KIXE will be airing Nova: Chasing Pluto at 9pm for anyone who is interested. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/

  2. Brian Grigsby says:

    Hi David!  Great stuff!  I’m actually at the Applied Physics Lab at mission control!  What a historic and surreal experience!

  3. Dave Schlom Dave Schlom says:

    I am so impressed by Alan Stern. What a magnificent scientist and even better human being. You are so fortunate to be there! But somebody has to teach summer school here in Corning you know?

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