Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Monday, December 22, 2014

Dark of the Moon, Dark of the Sun, Pluto Eve


“Dark ruled the Earth, and death has reigned
But on the wheel does spin!
From out the womb of night is birthed the infant Light!
The Sun has come again!”


We have once again come to the Winter Solstice, one of the most powerful, most profound, most sacred moments of the year—one of the few times an astronomical event captures the attention of people who rarely pay attention to astronomy.

This year, the Winter Solstice falls on the same day as the new Moon. For about three days, the Moon disappears from the night sky as it seemingly wanes into nothingness; then it becomes “new” again as a thin crescent appears in the western sky.

Similarly, the Sun at its lowest point appears to stand still for about three days before reversing course and beginning its journey northward on the celestial sphere.

The dark of the Moon and the dark of the Sun occur on the same night in this, the year unofficially dubbed “Pluto Eve.”

For those of us who have waited nearly a decade to see the first up close pictures of Pluto, asking repeatedly, “Are we there yet?” it is not just another Solstice, not just another New Year. As the New Horizons mission team puts it, we are “On Pluto’s doorstep.”

The spacecraft’s first observations of Pluto will begin within weeks and progressively get better as New Horizons closes in on the small planet. By April or May, we will begin seeing images of Pluto better than any taken by the Hubble Space Telescope.

On Earth, the Winter Solstice is when darkness in the Northern Hemisphere reaches the peak of its power and subsequently begins to wane. For millennia, it has been celebrated around the world as the birthday or rebirth of the Sun, a metaphorical journey from death to new life.

Today, even though we know that the Sun doesn’t change, that only our perspective of it experiences an apparent cycle of birth, growth, death, and rebirth, many still find deep meaning in commemorating the occasion.

As someone who loves symbolism, I see this year’s Winter Solstice as symbolic of many people’s wishes for Pluto.

In August 2008, on the second anniversary of Pluto’s wrongful demotion by four percent of the IAU, I printed a poem here called “The Death of Pluto,” which writer Robert Croog adapted from the original, “The Death of Tammuz.” That entry can be found here: http://laurelsplutoblog.blogspot.com/2008/08/two-years-later-not-gone-not-forgotten.html .

The poem, written a century ago, referred to the Babylonian vegetation god Tammuz, who was believed to die in the hot dry weather following the Summer Solstice, whose demise was mourned as the departure of summer.

Croog substituted the name “Pluto” for “Tammuz,” evoking that same sense of grief in response to a statement by Eris co-discoverer Mike Brown, who stated, “Pluto is dead.”

Significantly, Tammuz, being a solar deity, was seen as being annually reborn at the Winter Solstice.

To me, late August and September are a time tinged with sadness. It is always painful to see summer end. That is probably why I love the Winter Solstice so much—it comes to reverse the death and loss that began more than three months earlier.

Ironically, the IAU vote that demoted Pluto occurred just at the time of grief for the loss of summer, the time when, in many cultures, gods associated with the Sun and with vegetation, began to die.

Pluto symbolically “died” with summer, and this year, which starts as the Sun begins its apparent “ascent” from its nadir, is the year that will empower Pluto’s restoration to planetary new life. The images, the data, the revelation of this new world that New Horizons will send back to us will empower Pluto’s “rebirth” as a full-fledged solar system planet.

And just like our perspective of the Sun rather than the Sun itself is what changes throughout the year, in 2015, our perspective of Pluto will change. Already, people are looking at this complex world with five moons, an atmosphere, even a possible sub-surface ocean, as something that is obviously a planet. From scientists at Harvard to fifth graders in a Kansas classroom, the tide in favor of Planet Pluto and against the IAU vote, is growing.

Writer Philip Brown (no relation to Mike Brown), who in 2006 quoted Croog’s adaptation of “The Death of Tammuz” poem, wrote at the time, "I am inspired by this poem and its themes which are symbolic of Pluto: death, youth, hidden and mysterious places, occult energy and return to the Earth, decay and regeneration in nature, and a playful sense of foreboding. It is apropos of Pluto's recent demotion from planetary status, and the comments of Mike Brown."

Philip Brown discussed only the death aspect of the Tammuz mythology, not the rebirth. But half a story is just that—part of the whole, not the whole itself. Myths about death and rebirth, nearly universal, tell us all life is a cycle, that nothing ever is really lost, only transformed.

Like the Sun, Pluto never died and never changed. But just like we perceive the Sun to undergo transformation from a dying old man to a newborn baby (think Father Time and the Baby New Year), many perceive Pluto to have “died” as a planet.

This New Year begins the recognition of Pluto’s planetary rebirth. Tonight, at the dark of the Moon and the dark of the Sun, Pluto Eve gives way to the Year of Pluto. The light is about to shine on a very dark and mysterious world.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

New Horizons Online Workshop Tomorrow, December 18


The New Horizons team will conduct an online workshop tomorrow, Thursday, December 18, from the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union. Titled "On the Eve of Encounter: New Horizons at AGU, the workshop will be broadcast at 2:30 PM EST (11:30 AM PST).

Speakers include Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator, Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colo.; William McKinnon, New Horizons co-investigator, Washington University in St. Louis; Mark Holdridge, New Horizons encounter mission manager, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, Laurel, Md.; and Cathy Olkin, New Horizons deputy project scientist, Southwest Research Institute.

Follow the webcast here: http://live.projectionnet.com/AGUPress2014/FM2014.aspx

More information is available at the New Horizons web site at http://pluto.jhuapl.edu/news_center/news/20141217.php

A similar workshop on the Dawn mission to Ceres will be broadcast from the AGU's fall meeting half an hour earlier, at 2 PM EST (11 AM PST). Follow that webcast here:
http://live.projectionnet.com/AGUPress2014/FM2014.aspx


Monday, December 8, 2014

New Horizons Google+ Hangout, Wednesday, December 10


Don't miss this latest Google+ Hangout with the New Horizons team!

https://plus.google.com/events/cl2biekqpvu233r9cdv4so76900

Wed, Dec 10, 4:00 PM - 5:00 PM EST (remember to adjust for time zone differences).
Hangouts On Air - Broadcast for free
New Horizons just woke up from its long nap, and now it's just a few months away from reaching Pluto.

Join New Horizons' Primary Investigator +Alan Stern, as well as other members of the science team to discuss the status of the mission so far and the next big events that will happen with New Horizons.

This will be your chance to hear directly from the New Horizons team, and we'll be glad to take any mission-related questions you might have.

Host:
Fraser Cain

Guests:

Alan Stern, Primary Investigator
Jason Cook
Alex Parker
Simon Porter
Kelsi Singer
Amanda Zangari

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Vote for Pluto in this latest poll!


http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/09/24/pluto-planet-debate_n_5868008.html

Read the article about how a Harvard audience overwhelmingly voted for Pluto being classed as a planet, then cast your own vote! The poll is below the article, before the comments section.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

What is a Planet?



This Pluto debate at Harvard will be broadcast live online! Don't miss it!

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Pluto Picture of the Day and Countdown to Pluto


The countdown to the New Horizons flyby has begun! See a new Pluto Picture of the Day every day, plus a countdown clock to next year's flyby, here:
http://www.seeplutonow.com

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Pluto Eve: Anniversaries and Milestones


As noted many times in this blog, August 24 is the day that will live in infamy, the day in 2006 when four percent of the IAU violated their group’s own bylaws and voted for the controversial resolution that demoted Pluto and established a very flawed definition of the term planet.

But this year, also known as Pluto Eve, this date is much more than the anniversary of a poor decision that never really stuck.

This year, August 24 and the next day, August 25, are a celebration of milestones past, present, and future.

Twenty-five years ago, on August 25, 1989, the Voyager 2 spacecraft made its closest approach to Neptune, sending back beautiful images of the blue planet and its largest moon, Triton, that excited people around the world.

Distant Neptune had never before been seen up close, and little was known about it before the completion of the Voyagers’ Grand Tour of the solar system’s gas giants.

I remember being entranced by Neptune’s vivid blue color, so much so that I actually felt compelled to paint the planet in watercolors surrounded by the black background of space. I collected every Neptune image I could find from the flyby and still have most of them.

The Neptune flyby revealed more than just the blue planet and its surface features. Images of Triton showed it to have a thin atmosphere, some volcanic activity, some craters, and a crust of frozen nitrogen on top of an icy mantle likely covering a core of metal and rock.

With a diameter of 1,680 miles, Triton is bigger than Pluto, which has an equatorial diameter of 1,430 miles. Because it orbits Neptune in the direction opposite the giant planet’s rotation, Triton is believed to have once been a planet that orbited the Sun on its own only to be subsequently captured by Neptune, becoming its largest moon.

Like Pluto, Triton likely originated in the Kuiper Belt, which is why it is viewed by many scientists as an analogue for Pluto. At the Pluto Science Conference last year, images of Triton were discussed and presented because these two objects are believed to be very similar.

Both are geologically active, slightly smaller than Earth's moon, possess thin, nitrogen-dominated atmospheres and have various ices (of carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, methane and nitrogen) on their surfaces, as noted by Dr. Paul Schenk of the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, Texas.

The excitement over the first ever images of Pluto New Horizons will deliver in less than one year in many ways parallels the reaction many had to the first views of Neptune and Triton in 1989.

In an unusual coincidence, August 25, 2014 is an important milestone linking the Voyager 2 and New Horizons missions. On this day, New Horizons will cross the orbit of Neptune, putting the spacecraft in what team members call “Pluto space.”

This milestone is the final planetary orbit crossing for the vehicle launched on January 19, 2006 and crossed the orbit of Uranus on March 18, 2011.

To commemorate both the Neptune flyby anniversary and New Horizons’ latest milestone, Schenk used footage from the 1989 Triton flyby and restored the photos to create a new, higher resolution map of Triton that has been made into a video.

That video can be viewed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QDCndVGowmc#t=59 . Schenk discusses this work on his blog at http://stereomoons.blogspot.com/ .

This new, enhanced view of Triton is an enticing preview of what we may find at Pluto in less than one year.

To commemorate these occasions, NASA TV will air a program on Monday, August 25 from 1-3 PM EDT live from Washington, D.C. at http://www.nasa.gov/nasatv .

The schedule is as follows:

• The 1-2 p.m. event will feature a panel discussion with:
Jim Green, director, NASA’s Planetary Division, Science Mission Directorate, NASA Headquarters, Washington
Ed Stone, Voyager project scientist, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena
Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator, Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colorado

• The 2-3 p.m. event will include several New Horizons science team members giving personal accounts of their work during the Voyager Neptune encounter and their new assignments on the Pluto mission. Panel participants include:

Moderator: David Grinspoon, Planetary Science Institute, Tucson, Arizona
Fran Bagenal, University of Colorado, Boulder
Bonnie Buratti, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California
Jeffrey Moore, NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, California
John Spencer, Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colorado

Media can ask questions from participating NASA locations, or by telephone. To participate by phone, reporters must contact Steve Cole at 202-358-0918 or stephen.e.cole@nasa.gov and provide their media affiliation by noon Monday.

I will be phoning in and hopefully get to ask at least one question, then following up with an article about the event at The Spaceflight Insider, at http://www.spaceflightinsider.com/ .

Media and the public can also ask questions during the event via social media using the hashtag #askNASA.

What has come as a genuine surprise is the sheer amount of attention Pluto and the New Horizons mission have been getting an entire year prior to the flyby. I did not expect this much attention and activity centered on Pluto before 2015 began. The fact that there has been this much excitement starting more than a year in advance is more than encouraging.

And it shows just how wrong those who dismiss the ongoing debate over Pluto’s status are.

As has been pointed out many times, New Horizons launched seven months before the 2006 IAU General Assembly. Given the knowledge that a probe was already on its way to Pluto, why wouldn’t the organization wait until the images and data come in before making a decision? In science, the conclusion is drawn as a result of the experiment, not before the experiment takes place.

This mistake will continue to haunt the IAU and its decision no matter how much the group’s leadership digs in its heels and refuses to reopen the discussion. The images and data produced by New Horizons, which will continue to come in through the end of 2016, will by far eclipse a decade-old decision that becomes more and more irrelevant with every new discovery.

This is the last August 24 when we will not have close-up images of Pluto. Next August 24, we will have the most clear idea yet of just how alive a planet one astronomer prematurely wrote off as dead is.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Astronomy and Science Educator Jason Kendall

Astronomy and Science Educator Jason Kendall

Pluto, The Battle for a Planet
A special Homecoming event at William Paterson University
Saturday, September 20, 7:30 PM - 11:30 PM.
Science Hall East, WPU
Free and open to the general public
Stargazing hotline: 973-720-485
https://www.facebook.com/events/678378615580197/

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Suppressing Debate???


Are there some people with vested interests in keeping the flawed IAU planet definition intact who would go so far as to suppress any attempt at further open debate?

This question is not hypothetical. On July 29, 2014, Newsday posted an article by writer Delthia Ricks titled “Pluto Planet Controversy Rages on Among Scientists.” That article can be found here:

http://www.newsday.com/business/technology/pluto-planet-controversy-rages-on-among-scientists-1.8920685

Because there were many issues raised in the article that needed to be addressed, I and several other Pluto advocates wrote comments in response to the article.

While my comment followed the site guidelines and did not involve inappropriate language or personal attacks or anything else that might disqualify a comment from being posted, it never saw the light of day.

Today, only two days later, the article notes “Comments are Closed.” At least one other comment was deleted, yet ironically, a spam comment with the typical “My aunt made money online, and so can you” remained posted.

The article and comments in response to it were discussed on the Facebook group “Society of Unapologetic Pluto Huggers.” In that discussion, I mentioned that my comment was never posted, but a spam comment was.

Several hours later, the spam comment is no longer there.

The article noted support from Astronomy magazine editor David Eicher for a debate on the topic of Pluto and planet definition, a challenge Stern recently issued to Tyson.

The writer then stated that neither Neil de Grasse Tyson nor Alan Stern could be reached for comment.

Something about this seems off. As busy as Stern is, he is known to be extremely reliable in following up with requests, especially by the media, to discuss Pluto.

Astronomers who did manage to get quoted in the article presented arguments one could accurately describe as less than stellar.

A Dr. Denton Ebel, who chairs the Earth and Planetary Sciences Department at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan, supposedly “cringes at the thought of ‘the Pluto discussion’ presents incorrect information four years out-of-date by stating that Eris is larger than Pluto. Presumably referring to Eris, he states, "There's an object in the Kuiper belt that is larger than Pluto, and it isn't a planet.”

In November 2010, a team of astronomers led by Dr. Bruno Sicardy obtained a more accurate measurement of Eris’s size and determined it is marginally smaller than Pluto though 27 percent more massive. More massive means more rocky and therefore more planet-like.

Why would an astronomer in such a prominent position at the American Museum of Natural History in New York “cringe” at the Pluto discussion? One would think astronomers would celebrate any public interest in astronomy, seeing it as a jumping off point to engage and interest the public.

The writer also quotes Dr. Fred Walter, a professor at the University of Stony Brook, who proceeds to attribute support for Pluto’s planet status to emotion, saying, “Clearly, it’s a touchy subject.”

Obviously a dynamicist, Walter goes on to say, "Pluto isn't gravitationally independent. It's gravitationally tied to Neptune."

There is nothing wrong with a dynamical view of the solar system. However, the author never mentions that the real debate is between the dynamical view, which requires objects to gravitationally dominate their orbits to be considered planets, and the geophysical view, which does not require this gravitational dominance and defines a planet as any non-self-luminous spheroidal body in orbit around a star, in orbit around another planet, or free floating in space.

Here, then, is either deliberate bias or a lack of awareness on the part of the writer. She presents the controversy as gravitational dominance versus emotion rather than quote a single astronomer explaining and advocating the geophysical planet definition. And that is a disservice to readers.

Walter goes on to say, "We haven't really fully demoted Pluto. The word 'planet' is still there," he said, referring to the term dwarf planet. "But if you were Pluto," he asked, "would you rather be the runt among planets, or the king of the dwarf planets?"

He seems unaware of the fact that the IAU definition specifically precludes dwarf planets from being considered planets. The “what would Pluto prefer” amounts to a straw man argument. The debate is not about what Pluto “prefers.” It is about what constitutes the best classification system, what definition best helps us understand the solar system and put objects in their proper contexts.

A definition that blurs the distinction between shapeless iceballs and rock (comets and asteroids) on the one hand, and a geographically differentiated, complex world similar to the terrestrial planets in all but size on the other hand constitutes a scientifically poor definition.

Walter’s presumption about “what Pluto prefers” is nothing more than a case of him projecting his own view onto Pluto.

Walter also notes that Pluto has “the most extreme orbit of any of the planets.” While that may be true in our solar system, he fails to mention that of the nearly 2,000 exoplanets now discovered, many giant planets, some bigger and more massive than Jupiter, have orbits far more eccentric than Pluto’s. Should those not be classed as planets?

Ebel is quoted with the old standby, "There are lots of objects out there and we are still finding new ones. But everything can't be a planet."

But everything in hydrostatic equilibrium, meaning rounded by its own gravity, and not a star, can and should be considered planets. Where is the science in arguing we cannot have too many planets?

In fact, every single astronomer the writer quotes presents the anti-Pluto view.

Amateur astronomer Ken Spencer, president of the Astronomical Society of Long Island, is quoted as saying, "In my heart, I know that it really can't be a planet anymore. I was really sad to see it demoted. But after reading why, it's hard to argue with those reasons."

Actually, it isn’t hard to argue with the IAU’s poor reasoning at all. It just seems the writer of this article found it too hard to locate and interview a single astronomer who can explain just why the IAU demotion is so flawed, using only his or her brain, no heart or feelings necessary.

The article ends with Walter citing anecdotal evidence that he believes supports his case, once more beating the drum of “it’s all based on emotion.”

He says, "It's only older people who think differently. This is a sociological issue, not a science issue because people don't want to give up what they learned in school."

This sounds a lot like Walter seeing exactly what he wants to see. Many astronomy educators and outreach people have experienced just the opposite, that children not even born when four percent of the IAU voted back in 2006 still strongly support designating Pluto and all dwarf planets as a subclass of planets.

Walter says, "I don't tell the students what Pluto is. I let them vote. And overwhelmingly they say Pluto is not a planet.”

I’m going to take a chance here and say that while he lets the students vote, he introduces the subject by sharing his view on it. Unfortunately, in many cases, students do not feel they can or should argue with their professors. The notion of “just give the professor what he/she wants to hear” to get a good grade is a genuine problem and likely serves to bias many students in favor of the position their instructors hold.

That part might be sociological, but the question of a dynamical versus a geophysical planet definition, as well as the need for a definition that includes exoplanets, most certainly is a scientific issue.

Assistant Professor of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology Dr. Carol Paty is paraphrased as saying that even though New Horizons will present data about Pluto that scientists never before knew, she doubts Pluto will be reinstated.

How professional of her to draw a conclusion before the data is in. Maybe this is what she wants to happen--or not happen. She also fails to acknowledge that the IAU is not the only game in town. Another organization could very well form and come up with its own, better definition.

Interestingly, the last comment posted on the site, by an anonymous writer who simply identifies him/herself as “An Astronomer, reads “There is no debate. Astronomers say Pluto is not a planet by definition. A magazine editor and Facebook page creators have no standing to even suggest reclassification. The title of this article is incorrect and embarrassing. Pluto is not a planet. Case closed.”

So there we are. Once again, “Case Closed.” “No Debate.” “It’s Over.” “Astronomers Decided.” This is the same attitude we have heard from the IAU and supporters of its definition for eight years. It is the same mentality that led the IAU leadership to refuse to even consider reopening the debate at its General Assembly in 2009, when asked by a group of planetary scientists to do so.

Usually, decisions made once for all eternity are confined to religion, not science.

The bottom line, is there are those who have a vested interest in never reopening the debate. Those who want the IAU definition to stand and be the only one know its weaknesses will be exposed if the debate is reopened. They see themselves as the victors and so do not want any reconsideration, regardless of the science. Just shut down debate altogether. This is the type of mentality one expects from politicians, not scientists.

I am not personally upset that my comment was not published. There are many very articulate people who uphold the geophysical planet definition, whose comments would likely do a better job advocating it than mine. Yet not a single one other than David Eicher of Astronomy magazine, who called for the debate, was quoted. Not a single pro-Pluto or pro-geophysical planet definition was quoted, and the only pro-Pluto comments posted were very limited and general and did not address some of the weaknesses of the arguments made by the astronomers cited.

Plus, the closing of comments after only two days is highly unusual. Could some astronomers have possibly contacted Newsday, exerting pressure to close the comments section?

The reality is that the IAU and advocates of its definition haven’t “won.” The debate still goes on eight years later not because of emotion, but because their decision did not do the subject justice and continues to be undermined by new data we learn about worlds in this solar system and others.


My comments on the Newsday article constitute mostly what I said here, but I am reposting them for anyone interested. I have contacted the writer about these issues and will keep readers of this blog informed of any responses I get.

The Comment:

The issue hasn't gone away because people inherently understand that the IAU definition makes no sense. It also makes no sense for the IAU leadership to dig in their heels and continually refuse to reopen the discussion, as they have done so far. Here are several other points that also need to be considered:

The IAU definition says planets must orbit the Sun rather than "a star," meaning it automatically precludes exoplanets from being planets.

The IAU definition does not allow for rogue planets, which do not orbit any star and float freely in space. A planet cannot "clear its orbit" if it has no orbit to clear!

Even if the IAU definition did allow for exoplanets, a large number of these, including worlds larger than Jupiter, would not meet its definition because they have orbits far more eccentric than Pluto's, are in 3:2 resonances with other planets in their systems, plow through belts of asteroids during their orbit, share their orbit with another planet, etc.

One of the original motives for demoting Pluto was a perceived need to keep the number of solar system planets small. That has no scientific basis whatsoever. We already know the universe has billions of planets. If our solar system has nine, 90, or 900, then that is what it has. We can distinguish the different types of planets through the use of multiple subcategories.
Ebel is incorrect when he says there is an object in the Kuiper Belt larger than Pluto. His data is nearly four years old. In November 2010, Eris, the object to which he refers, initially thought to be larger than Pluto, was found to be marginally smaller than Pluto when it occulted a star.

Opposition to Pluto's demotion is not based on emotions, and you do a disservice by attributing the position to feelings. Opposition to Pluto's demotion and support of its planet status is based on the scientifically sound geophysical planet definition, the one adhered to by Dr. Stern and many professional astronomers who view dwarf planets as a subclass of planets. According to the geophysical planet definition, a planet is any non-self-luminous spheroidal body orbiting a star, orbiting another planet, or free floating in space. If an object is large enough and massive enough to have attained hydrostatic equilibrium, meaning it is squeezed into a round shape by its own gravity, according to the geophysical planet definition, it is a planet.

Significantly, Stern is the person who first coined the term "dwarf planet," and he did so with the intention that it would refer to a third class of planets in addition to terrestrials and jovians, not to non-planets.

Regardless of which is bigger, both Pluto and Eris are well beyond the threshold for being in hydrostatic equilibrium, meaning according to the geophysical planet definition, both are planets.

In fact, it is the supporters of the IAU definition whose decision is based on emotion, specifically, the position that our solar system cannot have too many planets because kids will not be able to memorize their names. Our solar system has whatever number of planets it has, and memorization is not important for learning; what is important is an understanding of the different types of planets and their characteristics. We don't ask kids to memorize the names of all the mountains and rivers on Earth or of all Jupiter's 67 moons.

This debate remains ongoing because people ranging from children to professional astronomers understand that the IAU definition, adopted by only four percent of its members, most of whom are not planetary scientists, is a very poor one and was adopted in a flawed process that violated the IAU's own bylaws. Significantly, an equal number of professional astronomers signed a formal petition rejecting the IAU definition.

The media erred in reporting one position, the IAU view, as fact, when what it really is is one view in an ongoing debate. To adherents of the geophysical planet definition, Pluto never stopped being a planet, and our solar system does not have eight planets; it has a minimum of 14 and counting.

Walter is also incorrect about an "age divide." Scientists strongly on either side of this debate tend to see what they want to see from the public and students. I and many amateur and professional astronomers have done a lot of outreach over the last eight years and have found that people of all ages overwhelmingly support Pluto's status as a planet.

Notably, unlike the overwhelming majority of Kuiper Belt Objects, Pluto has most of the same features that larger planets have. It has geology and weather; is differentiated into core, mantle, and crust; and may even harbor a subsurface ocean. As 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."

For more on the case for Pluto, visit my Pluto Blog at http://laurelsplutoblog.blogspot.com

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Astronomy Magazine Calls for New Pluto Debate


Astronomy magazine editor David Eicher has publicly called for a new debate between Alan Stern and Neil de Grasse Tyson on the status of Pluto and the definition of planet.

http://cs.astronomy.com/asy/b/daves-universe/archive/2014/07/16/astronomy-magazine-calls-for-debate-over-pluto-s-nature.aspx

I am also honored to report that I have published a guest blog in the same magazine!

http://cs.astronomy.com/asy/b/astronomy/archive/2014/07/10/guest-blog-the-case-for-planet-pluto.aspx

Year of Pluto Kickoff Event Tonight


http://airandspace.si.edu/events/webcasts.cfm

NASA’s New Horizons mission kicks off a “Year of Pluto” with an event tonight, Wednesday, July 16, at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern headlines a lecturethat also features New Horizons science team co-investigator William McKinnon and award winning author Dava Sobel.

The talk begins at 8 p.m. EDT and will be webcast live on the Smithsonian website, whose address is listed above.

Monday, July 14, 2014

It's A Planet: We're Winning!


http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/comment/2014/06/many-moons-of-pluto.html

I was working on an acting job this week, and the subject of Pluto's status came up, like it often does when I am part of a conversation. One of the crew members told a story about an incident between her daughter and a kindergarten teacher about six years ago. Following a pre-set curriculum, the teacher taught her class about the solar system, and when they got to Pluto, she told the children that Pluto is a dwarf planet, then added that dwarf planets are not planets but another type of object entirely.

The then-six-year-old daughter immediately recognized the flaw in this statement. "If dwarf planets are not planets, then are dwarf people not people?" she asked her teacher. Stumped, the teacher didn't know what to do, unable to explain her position. That night, she called the girl's mother and told her about the argument she and the girl had had in class. "I didn't know what to say," the teacher said, and it was obvious from her tone that she believed the girl was right.

And she was. A six-year-old inherently recognized that the IAU definition makes no sense. Many adults have asked the same question she did in commenting on various Internet sites. But now we have a kindergartner who knows better than the IAU. That is priceless!

With the New Horizons flyby only one year away, many people, children and adults, are already raising the inevitable question asked in the article above: will the images and data from the mission lead to a reconsideration of Pluto's planet status, whether by the IAU or by some other group or just by public consensus.

The media goofed big time by portraying the IAU vote as a done deal, as if 424 people could just change the status of a celestial body 3 billion miles away. To those of us who never accepted the IAU decision, which was made in a highly flawed process and involved a very questionable definition, Pluto never stopped being a planet. One of the reasons the IAU decision was met with so much outrage is that people inherently understand that science does not work like religion. Something does not become true or stop being true through a decree from "on high." Notably, the IAU leadership was asked by professional astronomers to re-open the discussion in 2009 but adamantly refused, leading those astronomers to boycott that year's General Assembly. As a result, the split between the IAU and astronomers who disagree with them on this and other issues has become much more pronounced, and the IAU has lost a lot of respect in the astronomy community.

Nobody voted on relativity; nobody voted on whether the universe is made of many galaxies or just the Milky Way, and nobody will vote on whether the Big Bang or another theory explains how the universe came to be. Ultimately, detailed study over time is what determines whether theories and ideas rise or fall.

The anti-Pluto activists' claim that opposition to Pluto's demotion is "emotional" is essentially a straw man created to discredit those with whom they disagree. Those of us who support Pluto's planet status do so because we adhere to what Dr. Alan Stern calls a geophysical planet definition. According to this definition, a planet is any non-self-luminous spheroidal body in orbit around a star, in orbit around another planet, or free-floating in space. Yes, this means that spherical moons such as Earth's moon and Europa are satellite planets. The key is that the object in question is large enough and massive enough to be rounded by its own gravity. When this happens, a world becomes complex, often with geology, weather, and layering. Pluto almost certainly has all three, as does Ceres. This is what makes them planets. Ironically, Dr. Stern is the person who first coined the term "dwarf planet," but he did so to designate a third class of planets in addition to terrestrials and jovians, small planets large enough to be rounded by their own gravity but not large enough to gravitationally dominate their orbits. He never intended for dwarf planets to not be considered planets at all. In fact, the concept of dwarf planets being a subclass of planets is very much inline with the use of the term "dwarf" in astronomy, where dwarf stars are still stars, and dwarf galaxies are still galaxies.

Some supporters of Pluto's demotion based their position on the notion that we cannot have too many planets in our solar system. That is hardly a scientific argument. We have whatever number we have, and if that turns out to be 100 or more, so be it. Memorization of a list of names is not important to learning. We don't ask kids to memorize the names of all the rivers or mountains on Earth, just to learn the characteristics that define a river and a mountain.

Pluto is a planet, but it is no longer the outermost planet. That designation possibly belongs to dwarf planets Sedna or Biden, or to a yet undiscovered world. Just recently, astronomers published an article making a case for the presence of two giant planets orbiting far beyond Pluto. It will be interesting to see whether these really exist.

ScienceCasts: One Year to Pluto


http://science.nasa.gov/science-news/science-at-nasa/2014/14jul_pluto2015/?fb_action_ids=10152534197308189&fb_action_types=og.likes&fb_source=feed_opengraph&action_object_map=%7B%New Horizons Only One Year from Pluto2210152534197308189%22%3A652971611451090%7D&action_type_map=%7B%2210152534197308189%22%3A%22og.likes%22%7D&action_ref_map=%5B%5D


Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Lowell Observatory Celebrates Pluto Week - NAZ Today: Lifestyle


Lowell Observatory Celebrates Pluto Week - NAZ Today: Lifestyle

I wish I could attend this! If any readers of this blog do attend, please share information, pictures, videos, etc. It's time to celebrate Planet Pluto!

Friday, May 23, 2014

Vote for Pluto as a Full-Fledged Planet!


Pluto supporters, please take part in this poll, and vote for Pluto as a full-fledged planet!

http://www.space.com/16534-poll-pluto-dwarf-planet-status.html

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Real Reality Show: April 18–25, 2014 | Astronomy.com

The Real Reality Show: April 18–25, 2014 | Astronomy.com

David Eicher, editor-in-chief of Astronomy magazine, does a great job explaining why Pluto is a planet in just a little over two minutes!

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

NEAF 2014 Hosts Pluto Advocate, New Horizons Principal Investigator Dr. Alan Stern


Last year, I posted an open letter to the organizers of the annual Northeast Astronomy Forum (NEAF) urging organizers to enlist a pro-Pluto, pro-dwarf planets as planets speaker as a counterpoint to Mike Brown, who gave his “I killed Pluto” talk at this event.

At that time, it was already too late to put an additional speaker in the forum’s busy schedule. However, I was encouraged to hear from Keith Murdock, member of the board of the Rockland Astronomy Club, which organizes, NEAF, also Lecture Series Coordinator for NEAF, respond confirming that the forum takes no stand on Pluto and would welcome a pro-Pluto-as-a-planet speaker in 2014.

Murdock wrote, “We are already considering our speaking slate for next year and will strongly consider a planetary scientist with a geophysical perspective for next year's schedule.”

This year, Dr. Alan Stern, Principal Investigator of the New Horizons mission, also acknowledged as a “Pluto Advocate,” will be a keynote speaker at NEAF, which takes place on Saturday, April 12 and Sunday, April 13 at SUNY Rockland Community College, 145 College Road, Suffern, NY 10901. The college is located approximately 28 miles north of New York City.

Dr. Stern’s talk about the New Horizons mission is scheduled for 4:45-5:45 PM on Saturday, April 12.

There will also be many other interesting presentations, including one by Dr. Rick Fienberg, Public Relations Director of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) on “The New Era of Professional-Amateur Collaboration in Astronomy.” In the last two years, AAS has made a concerted effort to reach out to amateur astronomers at its conferences and enlist their assistance in research projects.

Fienberg will give his talk from 1-2 PM on Saturday, April 12.

Also speaking is Dr. Neil de Grasse Tyson in a video presentation from 3:30-4:30 on Saturday, April 12. Tyson will discuss the new “Cosmos” TV series.

NEAF hours for Saturday, April 12 are 8:30 AM-6 PM. For Sunday, April 13, they are 10 AM-5 PM. Tickets are $25 for one day and $42 for both. Children under 15 accompanied by parents can attend free.

In retrospect, it is actually more appropriate for NEAF to host Dr. Stern in 2014 than in 2013. As noted before, members of the New Horizons mission and mission fans have dubbed this year “Pluto Eve.” One year before the actual flyby is an ideal time to build anticipation for the event and to get people once again thinking about Pluto, its nature, and options for its classification.

I want to personally thank NEAF and the Rockland Astronomy Club for welcoming my feedback and hosting a planetary scientist who advocates a geophysical perspective. It doesn’t matter whether this decision was made in response to my individual request or completely apart from it. What does matter is that by hosting speakers representing both sides of the planet debate, NEAF is taking the high road, featuring fair and balanced discussion, allowing participants to hear all sides and draw their own conclusions in an informed manner.

For more information about NEAF, including the entire schedule of speakers and events, please visit http://www.rocklandastronomy.com/pages/neaf/neaf.html .

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Solar System's Most Distant Planet Discovered


An object estimated to be large enough to be in hydrostatic equilibrium and therefore rounded by its own gravity, has been found orbiting in the inner Oort Cloud, beyond Sedna, what until now was known as the solar system's furthest planet/

Known as 2012 VP113, this likely dwarf planet is somewhere between 300 and 1000 km in diameter. It was discovered by Dr. Chad Trujillo, one of the three astronomers who discovered Eris, and by Dr. Scott S. Shepard.

Here is the article announcing the discovery:
“NASA Supported Research Helps Redefine Solar System's Edge”
http://www.nasa.gov/content/nasa-supported-research-helps-redefine-solar-systems-edge



The Oort Cloud is a hypothesized sphere believed to be the source of long-period comets (those with orbits of 200 years or longer). The Kuiper Belt, source of short-period comets, is located 30-50 Astronomical Units (AU) from the Sun. One AU equals 93 million miles, or the distance between the Sun and the Earth.

Pluto orbits at the inner edge of the Kuiper Belt, with its perihelion (closest point to the Sun) at 29.7 AU and its aphelion (furthest point from the Sun) at 49.3 AU. The Kuiper Belt is located in the area between 30 and 50 AU.

Sedna, discovered in 2003, is almost certainly large enough to be in hydrostatic equilibrium and therefore a dwarf planet, even though the IAU has not recognized it as such. Its orbit is highly elliptical, and its closest point to the Sun is 76 AU; being that far beyond the Kuiper Belt, it has been classed as an inner Oort Cloud Object.

This new discovery, nicknamed “Biden” due to the VP initials in its name, orbits beyond Sedna, with a perihelion of 80 AU.

The inner Oort Cloud is estimated to be significantly larger than both the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter and the Kuiper Belt. And now, some astronomers believe this distant region could host up to 900 dwarf planets with diameters of 1000 km (621 miles) or larger. Sheppard emphasized some of these objects could rival the sizes of Mars or even Earth.

Why have they not yet been detected? The answer is their extreme distance from the Sun. Both Sedna and 2012 VP113 have highly elliptical orbits that at aphelion take them hundreds of AU from the Sun. That makes them extremely hard to detect even with our best telescopes, even more difficult to find than large exoplanets that orbit closer to their stars or giant exoplanets orbiting their stars at a great distance.

And this is not all. Some astronomers believe that the similarity in the orbits of Sedna, 2012 VP113, and other objects at the outer edge of the Kuiper Belt is due to the presence of a still undiscovered giant planet that could be as large as 10 times the size of Earth.

A second discovery in the outer solar system was also announced today. The centaur (an object that appears to be part asteroid and part comet) Chariklo was revealed have a ring system! The tiny object is surrounded by two dense and narrow rings. Until now, the only solar system objects known to have rings were the four gas giants Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. One of the discovery team’s members is none other than Dr. Chad Trujillo, a co-discoverer of Eris.

More information on this discovery can be found here:
“ESOcast 64: First Ring System Around an Asteroid”
http://www.eso.org/public/announcements/ann14022/



Not too long ago, Pluto was viewed as the outermost planet and the edge of our solar system. Then Eris and Sedna were discovered, and the frontier was expanded much further. Now, that boundary has been pushed even further back. Who knows how many more planets exist beyond even this new one? If the astronomers predicting 900 or more dwarf planets in the Oort Cloud are correct, our solar system may very easily have more than 1,000 planets.

A Mercury- or Mars-sized planet in the inner Oort Cloud would throw the IAU planet definition in complete disarray because such an object would not clear its orbit of surrounding comets and tiny iceballs, leading to the absurdity where two objects of the same size are classed differently, one a planet, and one not a planet, simply because the second orbits so much further away.

What about a giant planet that could be 10 times the size of Earth? The Oort Cloud is huge. Such a planet could very well be perturbing the orbits of smaller Oort Cloud dwarf planets, but it would not necessarily clear its neighborhood of these or of tiny comets. According to the IAU definition, if it doesn’t “clear the neighborhood of its orbit,” an object is not a planet.

The Chariklo discovery, along with Dawn’s findings at Vesta, suggest we may not understand asteroids as well as we think we do. They too might require subdivisions into various subclasses depending on their individual features and nuances. Complex objects like Vesta are very different from the majority of asteroids and are not really asteroids at all in the sense that they are not rubble piles but far more complex objects, something between asteroid and dwarf planet.

Didn’t an astronomer recently say that there likely aren’t any more large, planet-sized Kuiper Belt Objects out there since none have recently been found? Maybe that astronomer spoke too soon. Or maybe the worlds waiting to be found lurk beyond the Kuiper Belt, out in the nether regions of the Oort Cloud.

There is an 80s song with a refrain, “The frontier is forever shifting. Move on to the virgin lands.” In our solar system, every time we think we have found the outer edge, the frontier moves further, and another region opens up. That is what makes studying it so intriguing.

And yes, it’s looking more and more like we’re going to have to get used to our solar system having not 9, not 50-100, but possibly as many as 1,000 planets. That does not “devalue” the term planet any more than the existence of billions of stars and billions of galaxies “devalue” those terms. Ours is a bigger solar system than we thought. Children—and adults—don’t need to memorize a list of names; they need to understand the characteristics of each subclass of planets, the difference between primary and secondary or satellite planets, and the different regions where planets exist, including the Kuiper Belt and Oort Cloud. And yes, they also should learn about asteroids and comets and the ways they are different from small planets.

The frontier is forever shifting, and the best discoveries may very well be yet to come.

Monday, March 10, 2014

2015: Tell People Both Sides about Dwarf Planets


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 attended 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

It's A Planet, Discussions from Pluto Science Conference Confirm


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

84th Anniversary of Discovery is "Pluto Eve"


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