Monday, March 10, 2014
Like Planetary Society blogger Emily Lakdawalla, I and many others can hardly wait to see objects like Ceres, Charon, and Pluto, that have long appeared to us as tiny dots, finally be revealed as complex worlds with geology and geography—in other words, real physical places we can explore.
And as she recommends, I am spreading the word as far and wide as I can about just how awesome 2015 will be.
But the backdrop and the story I am telling are a bit different from Lakdawalla’s—not about the facts but about the different ways we can interpret those facts.
Unfortunately, Lakdwalla approaches the flybys of Ceres and Pluto-Charon from the vantage point that the IAU demotion of Pluto is a done deal, that our solar system has only eight planets, when this is far from the case.
She is completely wrong in claiming NASA is not promoting its own planetary missions. Nothing could be further from the truth. The New Horizons team has been releasing videos promoting the flyby, marking milestones such as the time the spacecraft crosses the orbit of each planet on its way to Pluto, and planning major outreach campaigns as part of its year-long Pluto Eve designation.
After hosting a five-day Pluto Science Conference last summer, the New Horizons team is meeting for two-day seminars four times this year. The first, held in January, did include an extensive discussion on public outreach about the mission.
Likewise, the Dawn mission did a thorough job promoting the Vesta flyby, providing analyses of the data that ultimately led some on the mission to label Vesta “the solar system’s smallest terrestrial planet.” Dawn continues to publicize updates as its spacecraft heads for Ceres, and there is every reason to believe those on the mission will do as thorough a job of public outreach with Ceres as they did with Vesta.
But maybe there is a reason Lakdawalla does not acknowledge these efforts—specifically the fact that so many scientists on the New Horizons team, and some on the Dawn team, want the public to know that these missions are visiting planets because that is what dwarf planets are—smaller versions of the larger planets. This is based on their legitimately scientific view that by virtue of being rounded by their own gravity, these worlds “count” as a subclass of planets based on the type of objects they are.
So she ignores the position of Dr. Alan Stern, Principal Investigator of New Horizons and someone who literally fought for a mission to Pluto for more than 20 years. Dr. Stern says, "And I can’t think of a single distinguishing characteristic that would set apart Pluto and other things that you’d call a planet, other than its size. So I like to say, a Chihuahua is still a dog."
Yes, this means that large, round moons like Europa, Io, Ganymede, Callisto, Titan, Enceladus, and Triton, are planets too. Compositionally, they are planets. They are worlds we could someday explore and even possibly colonize. They are places on whose surfaces we can land a rover. Several of them, along with Ceres and Pluto, may very well harbor subsurface oceans that could host microbial life. The only difference between the objects listed above (excluding Ceres and Pluto) is that they orbit other planets instead of orbiting the Sun directly. That makes them, according to the geophysical planet definition, secondary or satellite planets.
If that seems strange, consider that astronomers have already noted that exo-moons (moons of exoplanets) could harbor life and should be considered for possible future settlement. No one can live on a gas giant, but a rocky moon, for all practical purposes is a complex, potentially habitable world—in other words, a planet.
Yet Lakdawalla draws an artificial boundary between these worlds and the solar system’s four terrestrial and four jovian primary planets. She says, “When you include the planets it's striking and surprising how big and varied the solar system's large moons are; they're quite planet-like, and you'll often hear planetary scientists slip up and call them "planets" when they're discussing geology of the planet-sized moons.”
The last sentence seems to be a response to a video released by the New Horizons mission containing clips of astronomers at last summer’s Pluto Science Conference referring to Pluto as a planet. These were not “slip ups,” and referring to them as such is a clear and direct insult to those scientists whose words were quoted. Far from “slipping up,” these scientists were, whether consciously or not, acknowledging that spherical moons and spherical primary objects orbiting the Sun are planets.
At times, Lakdawalla seems to be talking down to readers, with comments such as, “…it's very hard to talk people into funding a space program whose destinations seem to be places nobody ever heard of. Ceres, Pluto, Charon; and I'll add Europa, Ganymede, Titan, Enceladus, and Triton: how important can they be, if they're not on that list of eight planets.”
That list limited to eight planets does not exist, except in some people's minds.
And on what does she base the assumption that most people never heard of these worlds?
Her biggest blunder is the presupposition that all scientists simply accept the controversial 2006 IAU planet definition and demotion of Pluto. This is misleading and is a disservice to the public because it simply is not true.
Hundreds of planetary scientists signed a formal petition rejecting the IAU’s “nomenclature” change and still hold the same position today, seven years later. Lakdawalla says, US teachers “…don't seem to understand what Pluto is now thought to be.” The real truth is that there is no consensus even among astronomers as to what Pluto is. How an astronomer views Pluto depends on whether he or she adheres to the dynamical view, the one taken by four percent of the IAU, or to the geophysical view, the equally scientifically valid position that Stern and like-minded scientists take.
Is it fair to readers to stifle debate by closing off all discussion and simply declaring the issue decided when this is not the case? Is it in the best public interest to tell a story but hold back from telling readers that your story is really only one part of something much bigger?
I too oppose any redaction of Pluto from science education, but at the same time, am happy to report that many teachers, unlike Lakdawalla, do not accept the IAU decision at face value. Many continue to include Pluto with the planets, and the best ones teach the controversy, an exercise that centers on teaching children how to think rather than what to think. The best teachers inherently understand that Pluto’s status is an essay question, not a true or false one.
It isn’t clear what Lakdawalla means when she asks whether Pluto will look more “planet-ish” or “moon-ish.” That is because the division of spherical solar system objects and planets is artificial. Titan is often viewed as an analogue of early Earth, and Triton likely is very similar to Pluto. Other than their orbiting a primary planet, there is no distinguishing overall characteristic that separates spherical moons from full-fledged planets. They all are planets, and they all should be taught. Our solar system is a lot bigger and filled with far more planets than we were taught as kids.
Lakdawalla also errs in saying, “The reason Pluto was demoted was because we discovered other worlds out there that form a whole population of bodies, analogous to the asteroid belt, that occupy the same region of space. But we never talk about these other worlds. That's natural, because we don't know a lot about them; but the focus on Pluto tends to make us dismiss the rest as another belt of lumpy cratered rocks.”
First, the Kuiper Belt Objects that are spherical do not occupy the same region of space as Pluto. We are not talking about a crowded asteroid field like the one Luke Skywalker flies through in “The Empire Strikes Back.” There are several small planets in the Kuiper Belt, but they are not located in Pluto’s orbit or “region of space”—they are quite a bit further out and separated from one another. Second, she blurs the distinction between asteroids—tiny, shapeless rocks—and complex objects with enough gravity to squeeze them into a round shape. The former are rubble piles or dirty snowballs (comets) while the latter are fully-developed planets.
This does not mean that asteroids and comets should be ignored and not studied. At the same time, it is hard to understand how a geologist could so accept a blurring of the important distinctions between two very different types of bodies.
The geophysical planet definition argues that we cannot define an object solely by what else is around it. Yes, other bodies, small and large, were found in the region beyond Neptune. But that alone cannot be used to determine what Pluto is. To do that, we have to study Pluto itself. What it is should be considered equally important, if not more so, than where it is.
If it did anything, the IAU vote compounded confusion over what Pluto is. As one scientist at the January 2014 meeting of the New Horizons Science Team noted, that decision in some cases led to Pluto being removed entirely from lessons on the solar system (thankfully, many individual teachers and school board members chose to reject the IAU vote and keep Pluto in). There is no consistency in how the solar system is now taught to kids—that pretty much depends on the preferences of individual teachers.
It also generated a great deal of confusion among people of all ages. In various discussions, I have heard Pluto referred to as not only a star but an exoplanet, an asteroid, a moon of Neptune, etc.
Pluto isn’t “the end of the planets.” We haven’t completed our reconnaissance of the planets, and we won’t complete it with New Horizons because there are still more out there. New Horizons is visiting a third zone of planets, that of the dwarf planets. It will hopefully also explore one or two small KBOs that are not planet size. No one is arguing that either Kuiper Belt planets or tiny KBOs should not be studied.
A scientist should know better than to take a dictate by a self-appointed authority and pass it on as some sort of gospel truth. Unfortunately, Lakdawalla seems to have an agenda here. She has been close to Mike Brown for a long time and seems to be using her Planetary Science blog as a way of promoting him and his strange obsession with “killing” Pluto, which he has used to “brand” himself and leverage into money and fame. It is noteworthy that in December 2009, Lakdawalla attend a “Pluto-hating dinner” Brown held at his house, complete with a table centerpiece of a beheaded rubber Disney dog—this in front of a four-year-old. Brown gleefully posted pictures of the event via his Twitter account.
I also have an agenda, and that is to keep the debate going and make sure the public hears both sides of this issue so they can ultimately decide for themselves. The difference is, I hold to the geophysical planet definition, am honest about that agenda and don’t pretend to be giving people the objective truth while pretending there is no debate and or other side and doing everything possible to squelch that debate.
By all means, let’s spread the excitement about how awesome 2015 is going to be. New Horizons will visit the solar system’s only binary planet system, Pluto-Charon. Three new small planets will be revealed to us. Don’t tell people about “places that aren’t planets that we have yet to explore.” Tell them our solar system has so many more planets and types of planets than we ever thought, and that three of those planets will become real to us next year.
Friday, February 21, 2014
From the New Horizons mission at http://pluto.jhuapl.edu/http://pluto.jhuapl.edu/
"On Video: What Is Pluto?
Pluto has been a newsmaker and topic of scientific fascination since Clyde Tombaugh discovered it in February 1930. While conversations continue about Pluto's planetary identity, at least one theme carried through the talks at last summer’s Pluto Science Conference."
Tuesday, February 18, 2014
Eighty-four years ago today, a junior astronomer at Flagstaff, Arizona’s Lowell Observatory discovered a new planet while blinking photographic plates taken of the sky a few weeks earlier.
A little more than one year from now, the strange new world this young astronomer discovered will be revealed to us up close in glorious detail by the New Horizons mission. What has appeared to us for so long as little more than a tiny dot will become a real place, with landscape features, color, and texture.
This is why the mission’s Principal Investigator, Dr. Alan Stern, describes 2014 as “Pluto Eve”—the last year in which we will know Pluto as a tiny dot, or in the best Hubble pictures, two tiny spheres surrounded by four even smaller ones. In January, the New Horizons Science Team held the first of four two-day workshops in preparation for the flyby, refining plans for each of the spacecraft’s seven scientific instruments, assessing any danger to the spacecraft from dust and debris in Pluto’s vicinity, and preparing for the big reveal of the poster child for the solar system’s third class of planets.
Also one year from now, the Dawn mission will arrive at Ceres and settle into orbit around the small planet first discovered in 1801, revealing the secrets of that world, which, like Pluto, might potentially harbor a subsurface ocean.
Two years from now, we will know more about this third class of planets than anyone has ever known in human history. No one was quite sure what Clyde Tombaugh discovered in 1930 because it didn’t quite match anyone’s expectations. In one year, we will finally know.
More than seven years ago, the mainstream media did a tremendous public disservice by blindly accepting the controversial IAU planet definition and demotion of Pluto as fact rather than as one side in an ongoing debate. This is why we continue to see articles describing Pluto as “the former ninth planet,” an object “once considered a planet,” etc.
One year from now, the New Horizons team will present the public with a much more accurate story, from discovery of the tiny planet to the fight for a mission there, canceled multiple times before finally being given the green light. They will describe and define a world based on real observations in real time, not by a fiat determined in a closed backroom deal by 424 people, most of whom never studied Pluto.
Chances are, both New Horizons and Dawn will discover, or re-discover, two small but fascinating planets. And the media, educators, textbook publishers, etc. will have a second chance to get it right, to make judgment calls based on numbers, images, and data rather than on the word of a self-appointed “authority.” Discoverer Clyde Tombaugh would have been 109 had he lived to see the New Horizons flyby. His ashes are among several items on board the spacecraft, so in one way, he will get a close-up view of the planet he discovered. His large family will eagerly await the close up images of the world he found during the depths of the Great Depression.
A paradigm shift is taking place, one we are only now coming to understand. We live in a solar system filled with planets, and small, Pluto-like worlds constitute the majority of those planets. There is no need for one static planet number that never changes to describe our solar system, just like there is no need for an unchanging number of stars or of galaxies or of exoplanets or of moons for the gas giants. The new reality is that these numbers will not and should not ever be constants. They are and will be ever-changing as new discoveries continue to be made.
Using the logic of those who claim that a solar system of hundreds or thousands of planets will somehow “devalue” the meaning of the term, we could similarly conclude that the terms “star,” “galaxy,” “black hole,” “nebula,” etc. are all of no value since the universe contains uncountable numbers of all of them. Or, we can accept true change in line with every discovery of the last 400+ years, specifically, that we live in a universe with billions of those things we once believed were rare and few in number. But the fact that they number in the billions does not in any way diminish their value. The New Horizons team is putting out video “previews” anticipating the flyby, much the way movies and TV shows release trailers to excite people about upcoming releases.
Here, just in time to celebrate the 84th anniversary of the discovery of the solar system’s 10th planet (counting Ceres as fifth, Jupiter as sixth, etc.), is the latest preview:
The video and updates from Dr. Stern can be found here: http://pluto.jhuapl.edu/
And here is a music video the band Elias Fey made to accompany their song, “A Tribute to Clyde Tombaugh and the New Horizons Mission”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QVnqW2YcMKI
Friday, January 31, 2014
Tuesday, January 28, 2014
Saturday, December 21, 2013
Today is one of those days when I will deviate from the usual Pluto-centered entries to honor an occasion that has profound meaning for me and for many on this planet—the Winter Solstice, the original reason for the December holidays, though reversed in the Southern Hemisphere.
We hear a lot about miracles at this time of year. One powerful reason for this is that those of us in the Northern Hemisphere experience and take part in the greatest miracle of all—the return of the light after a long period of increasing darkness.
Long before anyone knew that the Earth orbits the Sun and that its axial tilt is the cause of our seasons, people dreaded the end of summer and the onset of darkness and cold. When there is no central heating and no possibility of growing one’s own food, survival is in question. As the Sun’s strength appeared to wane following the Autumn Equinox, people’s fears and anxieties increased as they faced the looming lean winter season.
Today, so much of the holiday season has become disconnected from the Winter Solstice, and much of the atmosphere of December focuses on what divides us instead of on what unites us. At a time when our actions are plunging us toward mass extinctions and environmental catastrophe, when we desperately need to reconnect with our planet and its web of life, we instead worship money and material things, which ironically are responsible for this disastrous course.
As an actress, I had a lot of outdoor performing gigs this year, and one of the benefits of this was the chance to reconnect with our planet and its seasonal rhythms. From rehearsing in winter coats in early spring, waiting impatiently for the warmth and the budding of new leaves, to all-day Renaissance fairs at the height of the Sun’s power, to an outdoor film set for three days in bright sunlight and 95-degree temperatures, to five weeks at a Halloween theme park along a trail, watching nature slowly go into dormancy, I experienced the year and each season of it vividly, profoundly, and powerfully.
The death part of the cycle, from late September to early November, was more serene than scary. Even though I was dressed as a ghost with white face paint along a haunted trail full of animatronics and fake monsters, what was most real was the sense of Earth going to sleep, which I could actually feel as I sat on the ground waiting to jump out and scare the next person.
When one has the opportunity to be one with nature, to feel the seasonal changes on a deep, intuitive level, it becomes a lot harder to take part in activities that harm the precious Earth with which we bonded.
That is why our society and so many people could benefit from celebrating the seasons as a way to understand, not just on a rational level, but on an experiential one, that we are not separate from the Earth, that, as one song states, “We live as she lives; we die as she dies.”
Myths and symbolism are another path toward attaining that understanding. Even though we know the Sun doesn’t change on our shortest day, the ancient story in which the Sun dies only to be reborn and begin a new cycle at the Winter Solstice, speaks powerfully to us with hope, affirming that there is no end to life, only an end to one cycle and the beginning of another.
An old Jewish legend says that Adam and Eve were created at the Autumnal Equinox, when the lengths of day and night were equal. However, they soon noticed that the daylight was diminishing more and more, and they began to seriously fear that the Sun would die, and the world would once again be plunged into formlessness and void.
When it appeared things couldn’t get any worse, Adam desperately prayed to God, who responded by telling him, wait and watch for three days, and after that, celebrate for seven days. He didn’t know what that meant but followed God’s instructions anyway. And on those three days, the Sun appeared to stand still, its southward movement stopped.
On the fourth day, the miracle happened. The Sun began to move again, but this time, it reversed course, moving northward. The days began getting longer. And Adam and Eve understood that the path of the Sun is a cycle, and such is the way of the world. And they celebrated for seven days, as people have done for thousands of years to this very day.
I am not a creationist or literal believer in the Bible or in any myth, but at the same time, I recognize symbolic truth hidden in these stories. From the beginning, human beings experienced the increasing darkness in fall, and felt the anticipatory terror followed by intense joy when the Sun appeared to return, bringing new light and warmth, the promise of spring.
Twenty-first century humans can be scientifically literate and still retain spirituality, the sense of the transcendent. Celebrating the Winter Solstice offers us this gift. To truly receive it, we need to get out of the malls and step into nature.
As our ecosystems face unprecedented collapse, as our planet faces the increasing perils of global warming and toxic pollution, we would do well to remember this, to understand beyond words that we are a part of the web of life and that whatever we do to that web, we do to ourselves.
"We’ll count all our blessings while the Mother lays down
With snow as her blanket, covering the ground.
Thanks to the Mother for the joy that she brings;
She’ll waken to warm us again in the Spring.”
~from “A Fire Is Burning,” a Winter Solstice song