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