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Friday, December 21, 2012

The Winter Solstice: Celebrating Light and Life

“When sweet Yuletide comes in like a bride
With holly and ivy clad.
In the dark of the year, much mirth and good cheer
In every household is had!

The country guise is then to devise
Some gambols of Yuletide play
Whereas the young men do the best that they can
To drive the cold Winter away.”

~17th Century holiday song

The diminishing of daylight has finally halted here in the northern hemisphere. An unbelievable two years have passed since the magical night of the 2010 Winter Solstice total lunar eclipse.

This year, misinterpretations of the Mayan calendar predicting “the end of the world” have unfortunately garnered most of the attention usually associated with this pivotal day, to the point that the day’s real significance has become obscured.

Scientists debunking the end of the world myth state that December 21, 2012 will be just an ordinary day, but minus the year, this can never be just an ordinary day. It is a day that for more than 5,000 years has been celebrated as a miracle, the rebirth of light in the depths of darkness.

The fact that so many forget this is another reminder of just how disconnected we have become with the natural world around us. We fear a mythic end while at the same time remain blind to the real peril we are inflicting on the planet in the form of climate change.

This year, those of us in the US northeast were reminded of just how much we depend on nature and the environment around us after sustaining massive loss of power in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. For a brief time, we experienced what our ancestors throughout most of history went through every year, not just for a week but for months on end.

Hurricanes are normally summer storms, but Sandy came at the end of October—the beginning of “the dark of the year,” historically the most frightening time people faced.

For those of us without power, daylight became a premium, a scarce few hours when any activity requiring decent lighting had to get done. Because central heating for so many depends on having electric power, we were faced with home temperatures plunging into the 50s. There was fear—what if power wasn’t restored for weeks? The weather was rapidly getting colder, and a nor’easter brought snow only nine days after the hurricane.

Significantly, many of us also experienced the kind of community support and goodwill often associated with the Winter Solstice. When one side of my street had power and the other did not, those who had power allowed their neighbors to run extension cords across the street so they could at least have minimal lighting. At one point, no less than six extension cords ran across the street. People shared generators with their neighbors. They brainstormed for the most innovative and creative ways to give even minimal power to as many people as possible.

We realized instinctively that no one could get through this alone.

This is what late fall and winter have been for thousands of years to people in temperate climates—a desperation to create as much warmth and light as possible in the face of the waning Sun, a profound fear in the face of months of dark and cold when food couldn’t grow, and all were at the mercy of a harsh environment.

Even though people long ago understood that the growing and diminishing of sunlight are a cycle that repeats annually, there was still subconscious fear that we could lose the Sun. The Sun was viewed by many as a ball of fire, and all fires eventually go out. What if that happened to the Sun?

At a Halloween celebration, one woman spoke of how her granddaughter asked for more candles since the few her family had did not give enough light. No matter how many candles we light, they will never be the same as electricity, they told the girl.

In the movie “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home,” an alien probe causes the Earth to experience almost complete cloud cover. The president of the United Federation of Planets responds by reminding Starfleet officials that, “even with backup generators, we cannot survive without the Sun.”

Even though in modern times we understand that the Sun doesn’t change at all during the seasonal cycles, when faced with darkness and cold, that primal fear often returns. And with that fear is a longing for the light, whether conscious, semi-conscious, or unconscious. That is why so many, even with power, experience depression or Seasonal Affective Disorder at this time of year.

Many cultures have overlaid what used to be Solstice celebrations with festivities commemorating religious or historic events. Unfortunately, this often results in people missing the miracle that happens every year to all of us, right in front of us. In the depths of darkness, light is reborn. This makes the Solstice everybody’s holiday, regardless of sectarian, ethnic, or other differences (with the seasons reversed in the southern hemisphere).

Sandy reminded those of us she affected that to really appreciate the light and warmth, we need to fully experience the dark and cold. Similarly, to truly value the wonder of our magnificent planet, we need to face head on just how much we are a part of the planet and confront the degree of harm and destruction we are inflicting on it with the illusion that somehow, we will walk away unscathed.

The Solstice is our annual reprieve from darkness and death. Whether there will be a reprieve from the destruction we are inflicting on the Earth is ultimately up to us. There is no better time to choose life-affirming change than right now.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Giant Asteroid's Troughs Suggest Stunted Planet - NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Giant Asteroid's Troughs Suggest Stunted Planet - NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Vesta is much smaller than Pluto, even smaller than Ceres, yet it's revealing itself to be a complicated world more planet than asteroid.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Vote for Pluto in Adler Planetarium Debate This video is great, but it unfortunately does not include enough of the scientific argument for Pluto's planethood. Look at the picture of spherical Pluto and all those tiny rocks in its neighborhood. Unlike those rocks, Pluto is large enough and massive enough to be rounded by its own gravity. It is a complex world with geology and weather. The "Third Rule" classifies objects solely by where they are while ignoring what they are. The overwhelming majority of Kuiper Belt Objects are tiny and shapeless, nowhere near Pluto's size. Those that are large enough to be spherical are planets too, if one utilizes the equally scientific geophysical planet definition, which states that a planet is any non-self-luminous spheroidal body orbiting a star. Dwarf planets are planets too, just small ones. Blurring the distinction between these complex worlds and tiny asteroids is simply bad science. Also, Pluto is about 70% rock.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Support Uwingu--A New Way to Fund Space Exploration, Research, and Education

At a time when governments are unfortunately cutting funding for space exploration and astronomy research and education, you can now take part in an alternative method to fund these projects, led by a team including Dr. Alan Stern, Principal Investigator of NASA's New Horizons mission to Pluto. Even the smallest donation makes a big difference!

Here is a description of the project from its web site,

"Reaching for The Sky--Help Us Launch to Increase Space Research & Education Funding

Tired of seeing space research and education always the victim of governmental budget cuts? Want to see a change in space funding and increased funds for space exploration, science, and space education? Uwingu LLC wants to effect these kinds of changes in a new way.

Uwingu is a small start-up company, a for profit LLC, consisting of prominent astronomers, planetary scientists, former space program executives, and educators who passionately want to create new ways for space exploration, research, and education to be funded.

We are planning a series of projects that will earn revenue to generate a new, private sector funding stream of millions or even tens of millions of dollars annually for space projects of all kinds, which we call The Uwingu Fund. The Uwingu Fund will provide grants to those that propose meritorious projects to us in space exploration, space research, or space education.

But to have the cash on hand to run the business in its first months, before sales can escalate, we need to raise at least $75,000 in start-up capital.

Would you help us turn our ambitions into accomplishments by helping with a sponsorship to help us get launched? Would you make a difference for space research and education's future?

But time is limited, Uwingu’s IndieGoGo crowdscourcing campaign ends late next week on September 14th. Make a difference-- sponsor Uwingu now! Thank you!"

Friday, August 24, 2012

We've Kept Planet Pluto Alive

On the website , the count of Pluto’s time taken away already read six years in the afternoon of what was still August 23 in Eastern Daylight Time. That count has been running continuously since “that day,” August 24 six years ago, when four percent of the IAU rushed through a hastily thrown together planet definition resolution that they expected the rest of the world to blindly follow.

“Eight around the Sun they roll. One we just had to let go. Too small is Pluto,” the band One Ring Zero sang in “International Astronomical Union,” a song recorded within months of that controversial decision.

Six years ago, an astronomer who is not an IAU member, who should be taking pride in having discovered several planets, followed this vote with the premature declaration that “Pluto is dead.” That line has evolved over time into “Pluto is still dead,” but more and more, this particular astronomer seems to be trying to convince himself rather than the rest of the world, of the little planet’s “demise.”

On this sixth anniversary of that “embarrassment to astronomy,” as Dr. Alan Stern accurately described the 2006 vote, Planet Pluto is very much alive, and the debate is very much ongoing.

Planet Pluto is alive because of us—all of us, astronomy enthusiasts, members of the public, amateur astronomers, professional astronomers, geologists, planetary scientists, teachers, writers, even kids—would not let it die, would not accept a bad decision simply because 423 people who claimed to be “authorities” dictated it.

I say 423 rather than 424 because my research into the events of 2006 uncovered at least one person, a scientist who spoke only on condition of anonymity, but at the same time a very credible source, who admitted they were bullied into going to Prague just to vote against Pluto, threatened with serious career “consequences” if they did not comply. This is the sort of thing one would expect in the most corrupt circles of the political world, but certainly not in science.

Supporters of the IAU decision decried public opposition to it as based on emotion and sentiment, often contrasting the demoting of Pluto with the demoting of Ceres in the 19th century. Why did no one at that time mount a campaign to save Ceres, they asked. Why are all those “Save Pluto” advocates not also advocating planethood for Ceres?

I believe the answer is the Internet. In the 19th century, chances are many lay people didn’t even know about the existence of Ceres when it was demoted. No one knew what Ceres looked like other than a point of light in the sky, one of many between Mars and Jupiter, none of which could be resolved into disks. And even those who did know Ceres was demoted and might have objected to the decision did not have a way to organize, come together, share information, and influence what was largely a closed, elitist academic world.

Today, academic elitism is a thing of the past. Astronomy is not specialized, privileged knowledge reserved only for a small, exclusive club. The resources to learn the subject, discuss it with others who share an interest, even to pursue formal education online, bring once coveted exclusive knowledge into every living room. People who share not just interests, but particular viewpoints on the subjects of their interest, can organize and create hubs online through which they can quickly disseminate those viewpoints.

When news first came of the IAU decision, many people reacted negatively, refusing to accept what they inherently understood as making little sense. In another time, such people may not have had much power to do anything other than complain about the decision. Today, things are very different. Today, one man or 423 can claim “Pluto is dead,” and an equal or larger number of people can read or hear the transcripts of the debate where the decision was made, research the arguments used, tear those arguments apart in a venue accessible to huge numbers of people, and literally keep the debate—and the little planet—alive.

Because we are asking for it, manufacturers of solar system models, curators of museums and planetariums, programmers designing online solar system simulations, book publishers, teachers, etc. are keeping Pluto in these solar system models or adding it back in after having previously removed it. Some are adding the other dwarf planets as well. Astronomers who write books, articles and blog posts or who embark on lecture tours with the message that “Pluto is dead” can be confronted and have their arguments refuted by anyone who has sufficiently researched the issue and understands the weakness of those arguments.

And when people who are not professional astronomers need help understanding a particular idea or phenomenon, they can turn to almost any expert via email and often gain quick answers to their questions.

Even more significantly, today, amateur astronomers with a computer and Internet connection can take part in actual astronomical research through online programs such as Zooniverse, which can be found here: . These programs offer opportunities for citizen scientists to take part in a huge range of research activity including classifying galaxies, identifying features on the Moon, finding exoplanets, observing variable stars, and much more.

Today, any of us can search for Kuiper Belt Objects through the Ice Investigators program, the successor to the Ice Hunters program. These searches have been established to assist the New Horizons mission in searching for small nearby KBOs the spacecraft can study after the Pluto flyby. Anyone interested in KBO hunting can get started here: .

The Lowell Observatory, site of Pluto’s 1930 discovery, has now established the Lowell Amateur Research Initiative, which offers a wide range of research opportunities for amateur astronomers. More information is available here: .

Whether the PhDs like it or not, today, members of the public not only can do astronomical research but can also have a say in matters like planet classification. The attempt to demote Pluto failed at least in part because a huge contingent of the public rejected it, and those of us who did have been able to obtain easy access to the data that supports our position. We have been able to connect with one another online, share information and contacts, post actively in forums, write blogs, give teachers and students resources to support our position, and respond as equals to those in the highest level of professional astronomy.

Of course, if our position were erroneous or untenable, this would not have been possible. It is actually because the IAU definition is so flawed and so weak that we have been so successful in challenging it. But challenge it we did, signaling at least to some the dismaying thought that defining planets is no longer just the province of “experts,” that every interested person has a say in this and other science questions.

“We draw the charts and maps,” IAU members are portrayed as declaring in One Ring Zero’s Pluto song. Maybe once upon a time, that was true. Maybe way back when, “experts” made decisions, and everyone else blindly followed.

But not today, not any more. Planet Pluto lives, and the debate over its status and over planet classification and definition is more alive and active than ever. Six years after what was supposed to be the final word, the end of the debate, the fight for Pluto and for a better planet definition has only just begun.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

An Open Letter to the 28th IAU General Assembly

August 22, 2012

Dear Dr. Williams, Members of the IAU Executive Committee, Members of the
Secretariat, Members of the Working Group on Planetary System Nomenclature, Members of the Working Group on Small Bodies Nomenclature, and Delegates to the 28th IAU General Assembly,

For the second time, I am writing to respectfully request the General Assembly officially reopen the planet definition issue in order to address ongoing questions and controversy that resulted from the 2006 planet definition vote as well as to incorporate new data on objects in our own solar system and on exoplanets into a more broad, inclusive, and comprehensive understanding that streamlines the spectrum of sub-stellar bodies ranging from tiny asteroids and comets to the largest sub-brown dwarfs in this and in all stellar systems in the universe.

As I did in 2009, I ask specifically that you reconsider and add Resolution 5b from 2006, which would establish “planets” as a broad, umbrella category under which both classical and dwarf planets would be included; that the definition be expanded to include objects that orbit a star or are free-floating, to accommodate exoplanets and rogue planets; and that electronic voting be enabled to allow IAU members who are unable to physically attend General Assemblies to vote remotely.

In the six years since the 2006 vote, there have been significant discoveries in both our solar system and others that call into question the utility of the planet definition then adopted. Many exoplanets since discovered would not fit the planet definition adopted then even if it were expanded to include objects other than those that orbit the Sun. Astronomers have discovered exoplanet systems in which two planets share the same orbit; systems with two giant planets in 3:2 resonances; systems with as many as six planets all orbiting within a distance from their star comparable to Mercury’s orbit; planets that orbit their stars backward; and planets that formed directly from stellar nebulae the way stars do. Many exoplanets discovered have extremely elliptical, even comet-like, orbits.

In our solar system, the Dawn mission has revealed Vesta, which is not quite in hydrostatic equilibrium, to be far more like a terrestrial planet than like an asteroid. Vesta turns out to be a complex, geologically layered body with an iron core that formed in a process similar to the way terrestrial planets like Earth did. Dawn’s revelations have led some astronomers to question whether Vesta should be considered the solar system’s “smallest terrestrial planet. Vesta is not a simple ball of rock. This is a world with a rich geochemical history. It has quite a story to tell,” according to Dawn Principal Investigator Dr. Chris Russell.

As members of the IAU are well aware, Dawn is now departing Vesta and heading for Ceres, which it will study in similar detail.

The initial reason that prompted the 2006 General Assembly to determine a need for defining the term “planet” was the discovery of Eris, which was at the time believed to be larger than Pluto. However, in November 2010, when Eris occulted a star, a team of astronomers led by Dr. Bruno Sicardy determined that Eris is smaller than previously believed, marginally smaller than Pluto though about 27 percent more massive. This is significant because it calls into question the initial “need” for a definition since this “need” was based on erroneous information.

I am troubled by what appears to be an inflexible stand by the IAU, a determination to never reopen the planet definition discussion at any General Assembly, even into the indefinite future. This makes absolutely no sense. The 2006 discussion was based on new data discovered about Eris and the Kuiper Belt. Now, in 2012, we once again have more new data on bodies in this and other solar systems. Three years from now, we will have even more data on small planetary bodies via the Dawn mission to Ceres and the New Horizons mission to Pluto.

How can the IAU justify not reopening this discussion in light of all this new data? If this year’s General Assembly is determined to not take up the discussion, why not commit to putting it on the agenda for 2015? That would be an ideal time to take up the planet question again, as there will likely be a host of new information from the Dawn and New Horizons missions on two of the objects directly at the center of this debate.

As I did in 2009, I emphasize that this request is not about Pluto; it is about the need for a more useful, clear definition that encompasses both orbital dynamics and planetary geophysics, one that covers both our solar system and others.

The IAU considers communicating astronomy with the public as one of its essential tasks. I remind the organization that communication is a two-way street. Members of the public, astronomy enthusiasts, and amateur astronomers have consistently communicated dissatisfaction with the 2006 planet definition resolution. Isn’t it time the IAU hear them and respectfully respond to their concerns instead of ignoring and disenfranchising them?

Planetary science is constantly evolving with new discoveries, and in light of this, it makes sense that definitions will need to be updated and refined continuously. The 2006 vote was a first attempt at a definition, but it should not be considered a final one. This is not religion, where an authoritative body speaks once for all eternity, issuing a decree that can never be changed. By reopening the planet definition discussion, the IAU will affirm its relevance and flexibility through willingness to constantly reconsider previous decisions when new data call those decisions into question.

However, if the IAU continues to dig in its heels and refuse to even consider a new discussion on planet definition, the organization risks being viewed as emotional, bureaucratic, and dogmatic, and will become increasingly irrelevant as an authoritative body on the science of astronomy. At that point, other groups and individuals will very likely fill the void and take up the issue on their own, to the point that the matter may fall completely outside the influence of the IAU.

In order to further respectful two-way communication with the public, I urge the IAU to actively seek input on important issues such as this one from a broader population, including professional astronomers who are not IAU members, amateur astronomers and groups representing them, and astronomy students at all levels.

Regardless of the fact that no action on the planet classification issue has been planned for this General Assembly, I implore the IAU’s leadership, delegates to the GA, and members to do what needs to be done, to show courage and sensitivity to both scientists and lay people by admitting the planet definition issue remains unresolved and by adding a provision to this year’s GA reopening the planet definition discussion, or at least committing to putting it on the agenda of the 29th GA in 2015.

More specifically, I also ask that the Resolutions Committee place a resolution on the General Assembly floor for a vote on August 31, 2012, to officially reconsider resolution 5b of 2006, which if passed would establish dwarf planets as a subclass of planets. I also ask that a second resolution be put to the GA floor to include exoplanets in all further planet definition discussions. Finally, I ask that a resolution allowing for electronic voting be adopted before any other resolutions are considered to allow the IAU’s full membership to vote on all relevant issues, a provision badly needed in these difficult economic times when so many cannot afford the expense of travel and lodging to attend the GA in person.

Laurel E. Kornfeld
Highland Park, NJ, USA
Writer, amateur astronomer, astronomy student and blogger

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Pluto Has 5th Moon - Hubble Space Telescope Discovers | Video

Pluto Has A Fifth Moon!

Almost a year ago, on July 20, 2011, astronomers observing Pluto using the Hubble Space Telescope, in preparation for the 2015 New Horizons flyby, discovered Pluto's fourth moon, P4. Today, New Horizons Principal Investigator Dr. Alan Stern announced the discovery of a fifth moon, unofficially known as P5! Are there still any doubts that the IAU vote in 2006 was premature? Interestingly, New Horizons was already en route to Pluto in August 2006, having been launched in January of that year. The Dawn mission to Ceres, was a definite go, scheduled for launch in 2007. It has been exploring Vesta for a year and will head for Ceres this August. Knowing these two missions were almost certainly going to unravel the secrets of Pluto and Ceres in 2015, why could the IAU not do the smart thing and hold off until we get the new data? Instead, they made a decision based on incomplete and insufficient information--very similar to the way 19th century astronomers erroneously demoted Ceres from planethood because their telescopes could not resolve Ceres into a disk, meaning they did not know that unlike most objects in the belt between Mars and Jupiter, Ceres is round and therefore a small planet. At present, both Ceres and Pluto are believed to possibly harbor a subsurface ocean--the type that could host microbial life! On a lighter note, as many readers know, I have become known online as the "Plutogirl," and my family has become known as the "Pluto family." How interesting is it that Pluto's fourth moon was announced on my dad's birthday last year, and Pluto's fifth moon was announced one day after my birthday this year! Here are the details of this latest discovery.

Vote for Pluto!

A fifth moon of Pluto has been discovered by astronomers studying the Pluto system using the Hubble Space Telescope, in preparation for the New Horizons flyby in three years. More to come on this latest development. Show your support for Pluto's planet status here, and make your voices heard!

Friday, May 11, 2012

NASA Dawn Mission Reveals Secrets of Large Asteroid - NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

To paraphrase the late Dr. Brian Marsden, isn't it time we did away with the term "asteroid" for an object that is clearly a planetary body, much closer to a planet than to an asteroid?
NASA Dawn Mission Reveals Secrets of Large Asteroid - NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Annual Pluto Protest in Seattle

The Greenwood Space Travel Supply Co. in Seattle is once again sponsoring its annual Pluto Day March and Rally in support of Pluto's planethood, held in conjunction with the 82nd anniversary of the announcement of Pluto's discovery, on March 13, 1930. While I love the poster and am now wearing the T-shirt, it should not read "Science Is Wrong" because "science" never mandated or decreed that Pluto is not a planet. A political decision by four percent of the IAU does NOT equate to "science." This is an important distinction because there is strong scientific support for Pluto's planet status under the geophysical planet definition. The view that dwarf planets are planets too is not, as its opponents often claim, based on sentiment. It IS just as much based on science as is the dynamical planet definition that excludes Pluto.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Planet Pluto Discovered 82 Years Ago Today

Eighty-two years ago today, on February 18, 1930, Clyde W. Tombaugh discovered planet Pluto, the tenth planet from the Sun. Pluto is commonly known as the ninth planet, but that is based on the erroneous demotion of Ceres in the 19th century, before Ceres was recognized as being spherical and therefore a small planet.

Two days ago, on February 16, New Horizons Principal Investigator Dr. Alan Stern gave an update on the mission at the Weekly Space Hangout, which can be viewed in its entirety here: . During the broadcast, Stern also discussed several other issues including NASA’s new budget. Those watching live had the opportunity to tweet questions to Stern and to several other astronomers linked to the broadcast.

Stern also urged everyone to sign the Care2 petition for a New Horizons US stamp. Anyone can sign; you don’t have to be a US citizen or even over 18. The link, once again, is here:

Tombaugh was 24 years old with only a high school diploma when he discovered Pluto, a planet missed by professional astronomers who had been searching for it, including Percival Lowell himself. Lowell, who died thinking he failed to discover a trans-Neptunian planet, actually had captured images of Pluto on photographic plates in 1915 and 1916 but didn’t recognize the small object as a planet, much less the gas giant for which he was searching.

In online discussions, professional astronomers who disagree with me often resort to the old standby, “You’re only an amateur astronomer.” I don’t claim to be anywhere in the league of Clyde Tombaugh, but this insulting comment demeans all amateur astronomers, who have a long legacy of past and present astronomical discoveries. Amateur astronomers also tend to have a broader view that encompasses many fields within astronomy as opposed to a very specialized focus in one area to the exclusion of all others. And they are usually the ones who communicate astronomy with the public.

Today, through computers and relatively inexpensive telescopes, there are more opportunities than ever for amateur astronomers to make significant discoveries. Clyde Tombaugh’s accomplishment remains an inspiration to all who seek new discoveries, regardless of whether they are paid to do astronomy or do it as a labor of love.

The planet Tombaugh discovered is now known to have four moons, and the New Horizons team is preparing for the possibility that it might also have a ring system. This is important because at the spacecraft’s speed, it cannot afford an impact with even a small ring particle. If a ring system is found, New Horizons’ trajectory will be slightly altered to avoid the possibility of such an impact.

Planet Pluto’s discovery excited the world 82 years ago, and today, this little planet continues to enchant and surprise us. Is it any wonder that the attempt to demote it, done mostly by astronomers who do not study planets, has never really stuck?

In his talk, Stern made some insightful comments about Pluto’s status. Here are some of them.

“The solar system made a lot more planets than we learned about in grade school. The solar system is teeming with planets.”

“It was a great tragedy when the press so readily accepted the IAU definition.”

On the benefits of a geophysical planet definition: These small spherical bodies are “gravity-dominated as opposed to strength-dominated, like a rock (asteroid).”

Stern continues to reject the notion of a small group of self-selected experts voting on science.

“This 19th century way of doing things—old guys in a closed room—is not the way to go. We’ve got to go with what people think.”

This statement shows respect for public opinion while at the same time noting that facts, not a backroom door vote, is what determines reality. The days of professional astronomers guarding their knowledge and keeping it from the general public as some sort of elite society are long over. Some professional astronomers seem to have a hard time accepting that change.

To commemorate this day of discovery, here is an image from 1930 announcing the new planet:

And here is Pluto today, a planet with four moons:

We can only imagine what the early photos from New Horizons will show us in just three years.

For now, Happy Anniversary of Discovery Day, Planet Pluto!

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Please Sign Petition for New Horizons Stamp

Please sign the petition at this site in support of a postage stamp honoring the New Horizons mission. You do not have to be an American citizen to sign; anyone from anywhere in the world is eligible to sign it.

Also, note the support of the stamp and of Pluto's planet status by Dave Eicher of Astronomy magazine here:

And here is a video in support of the stamp:

Friday, January 27, 2012

NASA's Kepler Announces 11 New Planetary Systems - NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

NASA's Kepler Announces 11 New Planetary Systems - NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

"Four of the systems (Kepler-23, Kepler-24, Kepler-28 and Kepler-32) contain a pairing where the outer planet circles the star twice for every three times the inner planet orbits its star."

Does this sound familiar? It should. That is the same resonance that occurrs between Neptune and Pluto.

Friday, January 20, 2012

In Memoriam: Patsy Tombaugh, 1912-2012

One week before the sixth anniversary of New Horizons’ launch on January 19, Patricia (Patsy) Edson Tombaugh, widow of Pluto’s discoverer Clyde Tombaugh, died in Las Cruces, New Mexico, at age 99.

To many “Pluto huggers”—a term coined by Mike Wrathell to describe supporters of Pluto’s planet status—this loss feels personal. Whether we had had the good fortune of meeting her, or whether she was an icon we admired for her longevity, tenacity, and many accomplishments, to so many of us, it feels like we have lost a family member.

Patsy Tombaugh was so much more than the wife of an astronomer. She was a teacher, a promoter of the arts, an active member of women’s advocacy groups, a co-founder of Las Cruces’ Unitarian Universalist Church, along with her husband, a promoter of education and of the Tombaugh Scholars Foundation at New Mexico State University, and since 2006, a staunch advocate for Pluto’s planet status.

And she had dreamed not only of celebrating her 100th birthday this coming November, but of seeing the 2015 New Horizons flyby of the planet her husband had discovered way back in 1930, before the two were married, when Patsy was still in high school.

She attended the New Horizons launch in 2006, an event that moved her to tears. She also took part in the dedication of her late husband’s telescope at Rancho Hidalgo in 2009. That same year, she was present when the New Mexico House of Representatives passed a resolution declaring March 13 Pluto Planet Day, in defiance of the IAU vote.

When that vote took place, Patsy initially remarked that she had “lost her job” promoting Pluto and keeping it in the public eye, assuring the little world didn’t get forgotten in the wake of so many new discoveries in the outer solar system—not to mention discoveries in other solar systems entirely.

But that reaction didn’t last. She was invited to take part in a 2009 Nova TV version of The Pluto Files organized by Neil de Grasse Tyson, who was so impressed with the kindness and friendship of the Tombaugh family when he visited them in New Mexico, that he actually began rethinking his position on Pluto. Reviewed on this blog three years ago, that Nova episode featured a Tyson who had gone from saying he “killed” Pluto to one who publicly recognized the existence of an ongoing debate, even placing a plaque in the Rose Center noting that Pluto’s status remains in dispute. Towards the end of the episode, Tyson invites Tombaugh daughter Annette to the Rose Center in New York City and proudly displays the plaque to her.

Unfortunately, Patsy was unable to attend the 2008 Great Planet Debate. The family was well represented, however, as Annette, her husband Wilbur Sitze, and their grandson Kyle were all there—and signed the petition I would send to the IAU General Assembly one year later.

Patsy was very much a woman ahead of her time. In an age when few women pursued post-secondary education, she worked her way through college, earning a degree in philosophy from the University of Kansas in 1939.

Along with her brother James Edson, an astronomy major, and Clyde, his friend whom she met in 1933, she actively participated in a group known as the Syzygy Club, a small group of six or seven young visionaries who discussed issues like space travel and rockets. Today, or even back in the 1960s, such groups and discussions are common and mostly well accepted, but in the 1930s, that was not the case. The group never spoke to outsiders about the Syzygy Club for fear of being thought crazy, Patsy noted in a 2005 essay, “My Life with Clyde Tombaugh.”

Her interest in astronomy was exciting to Clyde, as he knew few women who shared that interest. After the Tombaughs were married, she accompanied him to Flagstaff, Arizona, where he worked at the Lowell Observatory. In the early days, that meant “roughing it,” living without phones, refrigerators, or washing machines, and cooking with wood fires. While there, Patsy took the time to meet members of various Native American tribes and learn their ways—a practice that did not become popular in the general culture until the 1960s.

Like Jules Verne back in the 1860s, visionaries are all about imagining the future, thinking beyond the limitations of the present day. Patsy and her husband Clyde were such visionaries, which is why it is not surprising that she set her sights on seeing Pluto up close in 2015.

So many astronomy and space exploration fans, including those who disagree with classing Pluto as a planet, had been rooting for Patsy to live this dream. Still vibrant and active at 99, she became a symbol of longevity and tenacity, a link between the past and the future, an inspiration to others that life could be not just a long journey, but an exciting one, filled with wonder and trust in what could be.

Writer Alan Boyle reports that when he visited Patsy in 2009, she realized the Pluto discussion was not going away any time soon. “It looks like we’re going to have to keep on discussing this,” he quotes her as telling him.

No question about that! And no shortage of people eager to discuss it!

One cannot help but feel sadness at the realization that Patsy will not be with us to realize her dream of seeing the New Horizons Pluto flyby. Yet at the same time, we can also honor a life well lived, a life ten months short of a century.

A friend and commenter on Facebook, on hearing of her passing, said, “I really hoped she’d live to see Pluto…She can see it perfectly now though.”

In their tribute to New Horizons, the band Elias-Fey sings, noting the presence of some of Clyde’s ashes on the spacecraft, “Ole Clyde’s hitching a ride back to where he belongs. Far out of this world, to infinity and beyond. You gotta believe. Because that’s what keeps us moving on. An American dream to where no one’s ever gone.”

I choose to believe that my Facebook friend is right, that Patsy can see Pluto perfectly now. And I know too many people to count will be thinking of her when the flyby happens three years from now.

Farewell, and rest in peace, Mrs. Tombaugh.