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Wednesday, December 23, 2015

The Solstice of the Year of Pluto

A year ago, in my Winter Solstice entry, I jubilantly noted that 2014, the year referred to by fans of Pluto and New Horizons as “Pluto Eve,” was giving way to the “Year of Pluto.” Anticipating the “something wonderful” mission Principal Investigator Alan Stern predicted we would find on the small, distant planet, I noted, “The light is about to shine on a very dark and mysterious world.”

As Tim Dean, editor of “The Conversation” website pointed out in his 2015 review of science and technology—which placed Pluto first—2015 seems to have come and gone nearly as fast as New Horizons flew by Pluto.

This is the year Pluto was a star, a celebrity that made the cover of multiple magazines and was recognized by many news outlets and websites as a top science story.

Like many who have followed this mission, I already miss the building buzz and excitement that characterized the final six months of New Horizons’ approach to Pluto.

Does the Year of Pluto end with 2015, I’ve questioned over the last several weeks.

Our view of this small planet has been transformed from a tiny dot, at best a pixelated Hubble image, to an actual world, with jagged mountains, valleys, snakeskin terrain, flowing ices, a layered haze, and one particular feature that has generated awe and wonder worldwide—the prominent heart-shaped region known as Tombaugh Regio, named in honor of Pluto discoverer Clyde Tombaugh.

Everything about this tiny world that is more geologically active than Mars has surprised scientists, who continue to brainstorm in an effort to explain its complex surfaces and processes.

Only about 25 percent of the data New Horizons’ seven instruments took on flyby day has been returned. The rest is still on the spacecraft, and the downlink will not be complete for approximately another 300 days.

The fact that 75 percent of the data is still to come makes a compelling case for the position that the Year of Pluto will go on past the calendar year 2015.

Even when all the data is back, its study and analysis will take years, as can be seen from the fact that 25 years after Voyager 2 flew by Neptune, a scientist studying those images identified an undetected moon orbiting the ice giant.

And because the data is generating so many more questions, particularly regarding Pluto appearing to have an internal heat source, it seems inevitable scientists will want to go back for another view.

Stern often describes the sequence of planetary exploration as starting with a flyby, then moving to an orbiter, a lander, a rover, and finally, a manned expedition.

So far, the only planetary body that has undergone all these levels of exploration is the Moon. Mars has been explored with several rovers, and plans are underway to send astronauts there sometime during the 2030s.

The development of new technologies could reduce a spacecraft’s travel time to Pluto. Small cube satellites could be sent in a follow up mission. Significantly, the US has just now resumed manufacturing the type of plutonium required for a mission so far from the Sun.

Pluto remains a prime destination because it is one of several solar system worlds that has or might have a subsurface ocean that could host microbial life. That puts it in a category that includes Ceres, Jupiter’s moon Europa, Saturn’s moons Titan and Enceladus, and possibly other, similar worlds at the forefront of the search for extra-terrestrial life.

We will never again see Pluto the same way we did just a year ago. When in 2006, four percent of the IAU voted to “reclassify” Pluto, they effectively made a decision for a world about which they knew nothing. How can anyone classify a world without knowing what it is, what it is made of, and what processes are taking place on it?

Recently, French scientist Jon Luc Margot published a mathematical formula which he claims astronomers can use to determine whether an individual exoplanet “clears its orbit” and therefore should or should not be classed as a planet by the IAU.

Incredibly, Margot actually stated on record that it doesn’t matter what an object is made of because its composition has no bearing on whether or not it is a planet. The only thing that counts, in his view, is whether the object clears its orbit.

Most people who look at the complex world imaged by New Horizons see a planet. Far from being fundamentally different from those sometimes referred to as “the big eight,” Pluto actually has much in common with them. Ironically, Pluto shares some surface characteristics with Earth and Mars. It is not a rubble pile loosely held together or a “giant comet” composed largely of ice.

2015 ends with the debate over Pluto’s status and the question of how to define a planet remaining unresolved. It might remain unresolved for a long time. Meanwhile, every new image and detail sent back across four billion miles serves to confirm that this strange world is not just a Kuiper Belt Object but half of a binary planet system.

For thousands of years, the Winter Solstice on Earth has been a time of rebirth and renewal, the beginning of the transition from darkness to light.

We’ve only begun that transformation from darkness to enlightenment when it comes to Pluto. Regarding the adventure of unraveling Pluto’s secrets, the only appropriate language is, “To be continued…”

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Article by Arthur Wiegenfeld: Pluto Revisited: The Case for Reinstating its Planetary Status - Laurel's Pluto Blog

Here is a great article by Arthur Wiegenfeld on why Pluto and all dwarf planets should be considered a subclass of planets.

Wiegenfeld notes that if there is enough interest, he will publish a follow-up article discussing his ideas for a better approach to classifying solar system objects. If you like this article, please express the desire to see the follow-up in the article's comments section.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Geologically active Pluto may have ice volcanoes, subsurface ammonia

Here is a link to my latest article about the New Horizons findings, as presented at the 47th meeting of the American Astronomical Society's Division of Planetary Sciences this week.

Geologically active Pluto may have ice volcanoes, subsurface ammonia

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Monday, August 24, 2015

Nine Years Later, the Ninth Planet Lives!

Nine has been a recurring number throughout this Year of Pluto. Ironically, this day marks yet another significant ninth—the ninth anniversary of the controversial IAU planet definition and wrongful exclusion of Pluto from the roster of planets.

That decision can be compared to studies of climate change commissioned by oil companies. The scientists doing the study know the hand that feeds them, which is why they decide on the conclusion they want first, then make the study fit the result they favor.

A majority of the 424 IAU members who voted that day first decided they wanted Pluto out, then concocted a definition that gave them their desired results.

A year ago on this day, I ended my blog entry with the following sentence: “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.”

And we do.

Only five percent of the data taken by New Horizons’ seven instruments at the Pluto system in one day has been returned, but it is enough to confirm that planet Pluto is very much alive. Geologically, its lack of craters points to a world that is constantly being resurfaced, a world with some type of internal heat source, possible cryovolcanism, and maybe even a subsurface ocean.

Pluto’s active geology has stumped scientists who previously thought such activity is generated by tidal forces from a nearby giant planet. That is the case for large moons of the solar system’s gas giants. But Pluto and Charon have no nearby gas giant, so tidal forces cannot account for its geological activity.

Most scientists expected to find a dead rock so far away from the Sun and from any gas or ice giants. But Pluto is more geologically active than Mars, and even Charon shows evidence of geological activity.

On a human level, Pluto, with its prominent bright heart, has captured the hearts of people worldwide in a way they will not likely soon forget. It is one thing for us to love Pluto. It is a completely different thing when Pluto, in its most prominent image, appears to be sending a love note to us.

And yet, another IAU General Assembly has come and gone with hardly an acknowledgement of the amazing feat of humanity sending a probe to Pluto and the amazing world that probe revealed.

The only mention of New Horizons at the General Assembly was an article chastising the mission team for naming features on Pluto and Charon with names that may not be approved by the IAU, leaving fans bitterly disappointed!

A decade ago, the discovery of Eris presented new information that warranted opening the discussion of what is a planet, but the findings at Pluto are far more encompassing in telling us about these small outer worlds—and yet, no one at the General Assembly found a need to re-open this discussion.

Beyond the IAU leadership, this summer has seen a plethora of articles published on various websites repeating the same old IAU definition along with the caveat that Pluto is not a planet because “there is a third requirement of clearing its orbit that Pluto does not meet.”

A certain astronomer who believes he “killed” Pluto, and his followers, are giving interviews and talks emphasizing that although this little world is fascinating, it is still “dead” as a planet.

Nowhere less than at the flyby celebration itself, a few media people likely acting for this particular astronomer spent hours on Twitter tweeting about how Pluto is dead, even accusing those of us who advocate its planet status of trying to “ruin the flyby.”

The only way someone could have “ruined the flyby” would have been for them to fling debris directly at the rapidly flying spacecraft!

A writer for the Planetary Society posted an image with the Society’s logo of the “Non-planets visited by a spacecraft” that prominently featured Pluto—directly from the mission headquarters on the very day of the flyby.

What is going on here? To me, it seems obvious. Supporters of Pluto’s demotion keep repeating their positions online because they know the flyby data will reveal just how much of a planet Pluto is.

The “I killed Pluto” astronomer claims that advocates of a geophysical planet definition have simply “gotten louder, that no one has changed their minds on the issue.” Yet the reality is just the opposite—opponents of Pluto’s planet status are the ones who have gotten louder because the data is not working in their favor.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden openly said he considers Pluto a planet.

Dr. Daniel Brown, a British astronomer at Nottingham Trent University, said of Pluto, on the day of the flyby, “Maybe we need to reconsider its status again.”

A third requirement of orbit clearing? That constitutes circular reasoning, much like arguments that claim the Earth is 6,000 years old because the Bible says so. Just because an individual or group or book says something does not make that thing true. This type of argument is called “appeal to authority” and is known as a logical fallacy.

Some people approached the flyby by setting a false dichotomy, arguing that focus on Pluto’s status somehow detracts from focus on the science New Horizons is doing.

To me, that is a false claim. It is the science that tells us what an object is, what processes it has undergone, and what it is experiencing now. The science is what informs the status.

As Alan Stern says, “It is very difficult to look at an object with this complexity and NOT call it a planet.”

How much sense does the IAU definition make when its defenders, such as Victor Baker of the University of Arizona, make statements such as, "The classification of Pluto as a dwarf planet is really not based on criteria affected by the new images. The issue is that there are other planetary objects in the far outer system that are very similar to Pluto in size and general character."

In other words, the actual processes on Pluto’s surface and the features that reflect those processes have nothing to do with its classification. The only thing that matters is an inexplicable need to keep the number of solar system planets small. How far removed is this from, “I’ve made up my mind; don’t confuse me with the facts?”

Between now and the end of 2016, New Horizons will be the gift that keeps on giving—more data, more pictures, more understanding of this fascinating binary planet system. Those who refuse to adjust their perceptions based on new data are nothing less than untrue to the scientific method.

Nine years after a really bad decision was made, it is abundantly clear that that decision was premature and just plain wrong.

Some say, who cares; Pluto is what it is regardless of what we call it. But clearly, many people DO care. Definitions matter because they are the way we make sense of the world around us.

There is no better time than now, as we await arrival of the other 95 percent of data on the Pluto system, to affirm its planet status. As planetary scientist Phil Metzger notes, “…classifying things in nature is an important part of the progress of science, and therefore I believe it cannot ever be settled by a vote. Trying to enforce an opinion through voting is unacceptable to the scientific community.

However, the IAU needed to decide on the bookkeeping method it would use for keeping track of planets, and it had to decide something, so its members took a vote. That should have never been represented as settling Pluto's planet status. But mistakes happen all the time in science. We keep learning and we correct our mistakes. In this case, the bad definition of a planet will be corrected, I have no doubt.

…We are free to call it a planet right now. The planetary science community has never stopped calling bodies like Pluto ‘planets.’

So start calling Pluto a planet right now. Add to the consensus, because that's how science makes progress, by one person at a time being convinced of the truth and adopting it. Science is not decided by votes and you are not required to submit to nonsense.”

Make your voice heard! Sign the petition at . It doesn’t matter that the Honolulu General Assembly is over. There will be other General Assemblies, and there are other organizations that can address this besides the IAU.

Notably, this petition has 5,534 signatures—in contrast to 333 who voted that dwarf planets are not planets (to their credit, 91 voted that dwarf planets should be a subclass of planets).

And make sure to voice your opinion in the Pluto Safari poll at . So far, out of 10,013 votes, 73 percent favor Pluto being classed as a planet. Organizers of the poll note some even changed their minds from “no” to “yes” during and after the flyby.

It’s not over for Pluto. It’s just beginning.
New Horizons Pluto Flyby from Bjorn Jonsson

Sunday, August 9, 2015

An Open Letter to the 29th IAU General Assembly

August 9, 2015

Dear Dr. Montmerle, Members of the IAU Executive Committee, Members of the Secretariat, Members of the Commission on Public Outreach Information Management, Commission on New Media, Working Group on Planetary System Nomenclature, Working Group on Small Bodies Nomenclature, Working Group on the Public Naming of Planets and Planetary Satellites, Working Group on International General Assemblies, and Delegates to the 29th IAU General Assembly,

I am an amateur astronomer and freelance writer who is writing to respectfully request the General Assembly officially reopen discussion on the issue of planet definition for both our solar system and the countless others both discovered and waiting to be discovered.

Please note that I do not represent any government, space agency, space mission, company, or print or online publication in writing this. These views are solely my own and those shared by like-minded people who have signed petitions stating, “I agree that Pluto is a planet, and a better definition is needed.”

The last three years in general and the year 2015 in particular have been a time of momentous, historic discoveries in planetary science. The Dawn mission’s orbit of Ceres and the New Horizons flyby of Pluto have stunned the world, not just with beautiful pictures, but with compelling evidence that these are complex geological worlds undergoing active internal processes as we speak.

While much data awaits from both missions, the information we have to date shows that Ceres and Pluto are far more than spherical worlds. Ceres may have a thin atmosphere and possibly a subsurface ocean. It could be one of the solar system’s most active and prominent water worlds.

Pluto’s lack of craters, its unusual variety of terrains, stunning mountains, and flowing ices indicate it too is geologically active today and like Ceres, may harbor a subsurface ocean. Like its larger planet counterparts, it seems to have an internal heat source. Analysis of the orbital dynamics of the six-body system (Pluto, Charon, and four small moons) reveals that its four small moons do not solely orbit Pluto but orbit a barycenter between Pluto and Charon, making the Pluto system a true binary, with Pluto and Charon acting much the way stars in a double star system do.

Incredibly, New Horizons has shown us that Pluto in many ways is more like Earth than possibly any other solar system world. As NASA associate administrator John Grunsfeld noted, “With flowing ices, exotic surface chemistry, mountain ranges, and vast haze, Pluto is showing a diversity of planetary geology that is truly thrilling.”

The question of what constitutes a planet is about far more than Pluto. As astronomer Dr. David Grinspoon pointed out, the current IAU definition completely excludes exoplanets, of which we have now discovered close to 2,000.

It makes no sense to have one definition for planets in our solar system and another or none for the billions that orbit other stars or float freely in space. Doing this privileges Earth and its parent star in a manner that runs counter to the Copernican principle.

In 2006, the leadership of the IAU attributed the need to come up with a definition of the word “planet” to the discovery of Eris and other large Kuiper Belt Objects. New information frequently compels revisiting and revising our classification systems. The discoveries of 2015 and of the last three years once again compel a paradigm shift and revision in our understanding of planets and planetary systems.

In our own solar system, scientists have been stunned to find that what we thought were dead worlds are much more akin to their larger counterparts, in spite of their size.

In other solar systems, we have found a diversity of worlds in a huge variety of sizes and orbits, many in locations and situations previously believed impossible. These discoveries have often resulted in scientists noting a need to “go back to the drawing board” to develop a new understanding of planet and solar system formation.

At the 2012 GA, the IAU approved electronic voting for members not able to be physically present at the conference, a step forward I respect and applaud.

Now, it is time to take the next step, to act with the flexibility and open-mindedness that represents science at its best. No definition should ever be final because we constantly learn more, requiring us to revisit concepts we thought we thoroughly understood.

For these reasons, I ask specifically that you reconsider and place for a new vote Resolution 5b from 2006, which would establish “planets” as a broad, umbrella category under which both classical and dwarf planets would be included and that the definition of planet be expanded to include objects that orbit a star or are free-floating in space, to accommodate exoplanets and rogue planets.

Additionally, I ask that you remove all dwarf planets from the “Minor Planet” category, remove minor planet numbers given to them, and remove them from the auspices of the Minor Planet Center. The term “minor planet,” as noted by Dr. David Weintraub, refers to objects now classed by the IAU as “Small Solar System Bodies,” in other words, asteroids, comets, and centaurs, objects too small to be in hydrostatic equilibrium. The newly-revealed complexity of dwarf planets confirms they do not belong in this category.

I also ask that you consider classifying complex spherical moons of planets, which undergo the same processes as the terrestrial planets, as part of a new category of “satellite planets.”

Continuing to ignore these new developments will not make them go away and constitutes a disservice to science. I am sure you are all aware that at a debate last fall at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, participants, including scientists, educators, and students, voted overwhelmingly in favor of Pluto being classified as a planet.

Other polls, including those of professional astronomers, have shown similar results; people with strong backgrounds in astronomy and planetary science have overwhelmingly shown their support for dwarf planets being classed as planets and for a definition that includes exoplanets.

If you do not feel ready to put a resolution on the floor of this year’s GA, at least set in motion a process of establishing a committee to revisit the issue for the GA in 2018. I urge you to reach out to members of the New Horizons team, the only people in the world who actually sent a probe to Pluto, as well as to a broad cross-section of planetary scientists, both amateur and professional, and even to the public for input.

Now is an ideal time for such an effort, as the Dawn and New Horizons missions have generated a revived interest in astronomy and space exploration worldwide.

Failure to adequately address this issue based on new data will eventually result in another organization or simply public usage taking it up and adopting a better planet definition. If the IAU seeks to remain in a leadership role in terms of safeguarding the science of astronomy, it is time to revisit this issue and allow the time and deliberation necessary for the development of a genuine consensus, reaching out to as broad a spectrum of people as possible through digital media.

Laurel E. Kornfeld, Highland Park, NJ, USA

Friday, July 31, 2015

Alan Stern: IAU Definition is BS

So whose definition should we use--that of a self-proclaimed "authority," which issued a definition crafted by those who don't even study planets, or by a team of planetary scientists who actually sent a spacecraft to Pluto?

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Dr. Gerard van Belle on Pluto Planet Discussion

This is a great read on the weaknesses and problems with the controversial IAU planet definition by Dr. Gerard van Belle of the Lowell Observatory. Please note the views are van Belle's alone; the Lowell Observatory remains officially neutral on this issue.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Beautiful Pluto

When New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern was asked what he expected to see on Pluto, he responded, "Something wonderful."

He was right.

There is something powerful and overwhelming at seeing the world that has enthralled me for almost a decade suddenly take center stage worldwide. Suddenly, everyone is tweeting Pluto images, real and comical, sharing posts about Pluto on Facebook and other social media, marveling at this small planet that never stops surprising us.

Sharing in the joy of counting down to the flyby moment, waiting the long hours for the signal the spacecraft survived, and then taking part in the jubilation when that signal was received are experiences that that will stay with me and with those around the world who shared them, both at APL and online, forever.

New Horizons fly its nominal course, as the team that had been searching for hazards did not find any. None of the alternate Safe Haven Bail Out Trajectories (SHBOTs) that would have led to a slight reduction in the collection of science data, was needed.

The last image of Pluto sent back by the spacecraft before the flyby was a vivid picture prominently featuring the heart-shaped bright area on the encounter side.

Some described the image as Pluto’s “love note” to Earth. It was taken using the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) on Monday, July 13, at approximately 4 p.m. EDT when the spacecraft was about 476,000 miles (768,000 km) from Pluto’s surface. Pluto filled nearly the whole frame in the image.

The "rain of data" from the flyby, so far only one to two percent of the total taken on July 14, is literally one surprise after another. Who knew that both Pluto and Charon are geologically active worlds? One of the biggest surprises was the lack of craters, especially on Pluto.

That lack means the surface is young. Just what drives geology on both worlds is uncertain. Tidal forces from giant planets cause such activity on some of these planets’ moons, but there is no giant planet near the Pluto system to generate such effects.

The iconic heart-shaped region, unofficially dubbed "Tombaugh Regio" after Pluto discoverer Clyde Tombaugh, is covered in carbon monoxide ice. At its southern boundary sit exotic mountains 11,000 feet high, which scientists believed to be made of water ice.

In the center-left of Tombaugh Regio is an area of craterless plains divided into irregularly-shaped segments ringed by narrow troughs. This area has been nicknamed "Sputnik Planum" after the first satellite launched into space by the former Soviet Union in 1957.

Other parts of the plain show small pits, which some scientists believe were formed by ice that sublimated, transforming directly from solid to gas.

One possible explanation for geological activity on both worlds is heat produced by radioactive decay of elements in these worlds’ rocky interiors. Pluto’s interior could harbor potassium, thorium, and uranium, all of which produce heat via radioactive decay.

“The discovery of vast, craterless, very young plains on Pluto exceeds all pre-flyby expectations," noted Jeff Moore, leader of the mission's Geology, Geophysics, and Imaging (GGI) team.

Pluto's atmosphere extends 1,000 miles from its surface. Tens of thousands of miles beyond the planet, New Horizons detected a region of cold, ionized gas, confirming Pluto's atmosphere is being lost to the solar wind.

While Pluto is various shades of reddish brown, Charon is largely gray. It is marked by cracks like those on the Earth's Moon and Mercury.

A prominent crater in its southern hemisphere is much longer and deeper than the Grand Canyon and is estimated to be 60 miles across.

The strange, dark "anti-polar cap" near Charon's north pole is diffuse, stretching about 200 miles long. In color, this region appears reddish, fueling early speculation that the area is covered by material blown off the surface of Pluto.

A zoomed-in image of a region near Charon's equator reveals a mountain appearing to rise out of a trough. The strange feature, about 240 miles (390 km) long, is completely baffling scientists. It has been nicknamed the “mountain in a moat."

The feature has geologists "stunned and stumped," Moore said.

The next batch of data to be sent back by New Horizons will be released on Friday, July 24 at a media conference.

Here are two animation produced by the mission team, "Frozen Plains in the Heart of Pluto's Heart"
and "Animated Flyover of Pluto's Icy Mountains and Plains":

Scientists are not the only ones fascinated by enigmatic Pluto. Artists, writers, musicians, graphic designers, etc., inspired by Pluto, have spent the last week creating beautiful works of art honoring the little planet that could, its five moon, and the spacecraft that flew more than three billion miles to see the system's wonders.

Here is just one of many such sites, this one titled "PlutoVerse": .

Over the last week, I have written detailed descriptions of New Horizons' findings for Spaceflight Insider, which you can read at the following links:

One of the most memorable experiences was meeting Annette Tombaugh-Sitze and Alden Tombaugh, the daughter and son of Clyde Tombaugh, discoverer of Pluto. In a strange way, Clyde got to visit his planet, as a small amount of his ashes are on board New Horizons.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

To Pluto With Love

The iconic heart-shaped bright area on Pluto's surface that has captured the imaginations of people around the world is in many ways the emblem of its host planet--a world that has had a powerful, mysterious grip on humanity for the 85 years since its discovery, a grip of both heart and mind.

On the eve of New Horizons' historic encounter with the ninth planet that is really the tenth planet (as Ceres is a planet too, according to the geophysical planet definition), I am honored to be here at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab, covering the event for "Spaceflight Insider" as well as "The Space Reporter" and this blog.

The place is swarming with Pluto-lovers overwhelmed with anticipation alongside a surreal sense that this is somehow a dream, that it cannot possibly be happening.

But it is happening. Tomorrow, July 14, 2015, we will, as Alan Stern has often said, "storm the gates of Pluto" as revolutionaries in France stormed the Bastille on the same day in 1789.

Pluto has already begun to reveal its secrets. A major one is its size. Pluto is the largest Kuiper Belt planet after all. It is 1,473 miles in diameter, larger than previously thought and slightly larger than Eris.

Pluto and its binary companion Charon are far from dead rocks. They are geologically active worlds, and we have only begun to unveil their secrets.

In a public interview, Annette Tombaugh-Sitze, the daughter of Pluto discoverer Clyde Tombaugh, surprised many by saying the controversial 2006 IAU vote changed her life.

It motivated her to fight back, to attend the Great Planet Debate held here in 2008, to speak publicly defending the planet status of the world her father discovered back in 1930.

She is not the only person whose life was changed by that vote.

Mine was changed as well, and I suspect many others' lives were also changed.

Some grieved. Some accepted it. I chose to fight it. In the process, I met some of the most amazing people I have ever known, people who have become good friends, who have enriched my life, yet who I otherwise never would have met.

I joined a local astronomy club in central New Jersey. I attended public events such as the Great Pluto Debate at the Clay Observatory, the Great Planet Debate here at APL, and the What Is A Planet debate at the American Museum of Natural History.

I found a new passion through which I bonded with my family. We watched planets and stars together in all seasons. We shared the wonder of the night sky and dreams of worlds out there even though we are different in so many ways.

I wrote this blog. I reached people, who reached other people. We formed bonds based on our love of this small, mysterious world and conviction that small planets are planets too.

I went back to school, studied astronomy, and became a science writer.

And I am far from alone. This is the kind of hold Pluto has on so many. Words ultimately fail when we try to explain it. Pluto inspires art and music in addition to science, much as do those other things we hold to intensely, such as spirituality, religion, love, political convictions, people close to us.

Pluto has captured my mind and my heart, as it has those of so many around the world.

And now, the underdog planet, the world wrongly scorned, the world so many of us instinctively knew that four percent of the IAU didn't get, is ready for its moment in the Sun. Yes, it will be brief, but it will change history and make its mark upon generations.
"The stone the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone." That is Planet Pluto.

What will be learned tomorrow will be unveiled over the next 16 months. That is the time it will take to send back all the data that will be taken by New Horizons' seven instruments of Pluto, Charon, and four small moons.

Eighty-five years ago, in the depths of the Great Depression, the discovery of a new planet gave people rare good news. It reminded them of the great things people can do even in the face of poverty and war. It brightened their world with a ray of light and hope.

Today, once again, in a world with frightening violence and abject poverty, Pluto brings us hope, excites our imaginations, allows us to once again believe that we can do great things.

Godspeed, New Horizons. So much is riding on one little probe.

"The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight."

Friday, July 10, 2015

NASA Announces Updated Television Coverage, Media Activities for Pluto Flyby

NASA Announces Updated Television Coverage, Media Activities for Pluto Flyby

Please note that NASA TV is no longer compatible with Internet Explorer, so you will need to use a different browser to view its broadcasts.

July 8, 2015


NASA Announces Updated Television Coverage, Media Activities for Pluto Flyby

NASA is inviting media to cover the New Horizons spacecraft’s closest approach and July 14 Pluto flyby from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland, site of the mission operations center.

NASA will provide flyby coverage on NASA Television, the agency’s website and its social media accounts as the spacecraft closes in on Pluto in the coming days. The schedule for event coverage is subject to change, with daily updates posted online and in the New Horizons Media Center at APL.

On-site media registration is now closed; however, walk-in media representatives may be accommodated on a case-by-case basis.

The New Horizons Media Center opens at APL from 1 to 7 p.m. EDT on July 12. Accredited media may pick up credentials during those hours and Monday and Tuesday morning. Credentials must be picked up in person and valid photo identification must be shown. Non-US citizens must bring their passport and visa or a permanent resident alien registration card. The media center number is 240-228-8532.

The media center also will be open from 7 a.m. to midnight on July 13, 5 a.m. to midnight on July 14, 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. on July 15, and 7 a.m. to noon on July 16. Hours of operation are subject to change.

Visitor and logistics information is available online at:

Highlights of the current coverage schedule, all in Eastern time, include:

July 8 - 10
11:30 a.m. – Final approach to Pluto; daily mission updates on NASA TV

July 11 - 12
11:30 a.m. – Final approach to Pluto; live mission updates on NASA TV

Monday, July 13
11 a.m. to noon – Media briefing: Mission Status and What to Expect; live on NASA TV
2:30 to 5:30 p.m. – Panels: APL’s Endeavors in Space and the latest on New Horizons (no NASA TV coverage)

Tuesday, July 14
7:30 to 8 a.m. – Arrival at Pluto Countdown Program; live on NASA TV

At approximately 7:49 a.m., New Horizons is scheduled to be as close as the spacecraft will get to Pluto, approximately 7,800 miles (12,500 kilometers) above the surface, after a journey of more than nine years and three billion miles. For much of the day, New Horizons will be out of communication with mission control as it gathers data about Pluto and its moons.

The moment of closest approach will be marked during the live NASA TV broadcast that includes a countdown and discussion of what’s expected next as New Horizons makes its way past Pluto and potentially dangerous debris.

8 to 9 a.m. – Media briefing, image release; live on NASA TV

9 a.m. to noon – Interview Opportunities (no NASA TV coverage)

Informal group briefings and availability for one-on-one interviews. An updated schedule will be posted in the New Horizons Media Center. Media may call into the media center for phone interviews during newsroom hours.

Noon to 3 p.m. – Panel Discussions (no NASA TV coverage)
•New Horizons mission overview and history
•Pluto system discoveries on approach
•Mariner 4 and Pluto: 50 years to the day

8:30 to 9:15 p.m. – NASA TV program, Phone Home, broadcast from APL Mission Control

NASA TV will share the suspenseful moments of this historic event with the public and museums around the world. The New Horizons spacecraft will send a preprogrammed signal after the closest approach. The mission team on Earth should receive the signal by about 9:02 p.m. When New Horizons “phones home,” there will be a celebration of its successful flyby and the anticipation of data to come in the days and months ahead.

9:30 to 10 p.m. – Media Briefing: New Horizons Health and Mission Status; live on NASA TV

Wednesday, July 15
Noon to 3 p.m. – Interview Opportunities (no NASA TV coverage)

Informal group briefings and availability for one-on-one interviews. An updated schedule will be posted in the New Horizons Media Center. Media may call into the media center for phone interviews during newsroom hours.

3 to 4 p.m. – Media Briefing: Seeing Pluto in a New Light; live on NASA TV

Release of close-up images of Pluto’s surface and moons, along with initial science team reactions.

New Horizons is the first mission to the Kuiper Belt, a gigantic zone of icy bodies and mysterious small objects orbiting beyond Neptune. This region also is known as the “third” zone of our solar system, beyond the inner rocky planets and outer gas giants.

APL designed, built and operates the New Horizons spacecraft, and manages the mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio leads the science team, payload operations and encounter science planning. New Horizons is part of the New Frontiers Program, managed by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

For NASA TV schedules, satellite coordinates, and links to streaming video, visit:

The public can follow the path of the spacecraft in coming days in real time with a visualization of the actual trajectory data, using NASA’s online Eyes on Pluto.

Follow the New Horizons mission on Twitter and use the hashtag #PlutoFlyby to join the conversation. Live updates will be available on the mission Facebook page.

For more information on the New Horizons mission, including fact sheets, schedules, video and images, visit:


Dwayne Brown / Laurie Cantillo
Headquarters, Washington
202-358-1726 / 202-358-1077 /

Mike Buckley
Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, Laurel, Md.

Maria Stothoff
Southwest Research Institute, San Antonio

Last Updated: July 10, 2015

Editor: Karen Northon

Tags: New Horizons, Pluto

Friday, July 3, 2015

Pluto shows two different faces as New Horizons closes in

Here is my latest article for "Spaceflight Insider" discussing Pluto's "two faces," detection of methane on its surface, measurements taken from Earth earlier this week when Pluto occulted a star, and the New Horizons' team decision to stick with its original path through the Pluto system after failing to detect any major hazards on that path.

Pluto: The 'Other' Red Planet

Pluto: The 'Other' Red Planet

Pluto and Charon Surfaces in Living Color

Pluto and Charon Surfaces in Living Color

Thursday, June 25, 2015

NASA Scientist: Call Pluto A Planet

Anyone interested in Pluto should take the time to read this fantastic article. Dr. Philip Metzger is a planetary scientist at the University of Central Florida and recently retired from NASA's New Horizons communication team. In his articles, he has consistently made some of the strongest arguments I have read in nearly nine years in support of Pluto's planet status.

"So start calling Pluto a planet right now. Add to the consensus, because that's how science makes progress, by one person at a time being convinced of the truth and adopting it. Science is not decided by votes and you are not required to submit to nonsense."

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

NASA's New Horizons Mission Update from the Johns Hopkins University App...

Oh Pluto - Werth, Lavin

New Horizons is an exciting science mission, but it and the small planet it is visiting have always been something more, something transcendent, something that has and continues to inspire art in all its forms. This beautiful song written by folk musician Craig Werth, called "Oh, Pluto," reflects the sense of wonder, mystery, and fascination that both Pluto and New Horizons continue to generate. As Universe Today writer Nancy Atkinson says, "Oh, Pluto will tug at your heartstrings."

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

New Horizons Google+ Hangout, Friday, June 19

In order to participate, you need to visit the website listed in the photo. When you get to the site, request participation.

One Month Out: It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Pluto

It is now less than a month until New Horizons encounters Pluto, and like a rock star, Pluto is everywhere in the media. Articles, videos, animations, and images are coming so fast that it feels nearly impossible to keep up with them all.

Let me know if there are any Pluto magazine covers I've missed!

Slowly, the small planet is beginning to give up its secrets. Images taken by New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) show Pluto’s surface to be one of high color contrast, with bright regions, dark regions, and intermediate regions. This matches our best Hubble images, which though blurry, show great a planet with a very contrasted surface.

Significantly, Pluto appears to have a polar cap! That makes it one of only three solar system planets to have polar caps—the other two being Earth and Mars.

Studies of the Pluto system’s four small moons indicate they have odd, tumbling orbits, caused by the fact that they orbit two bodies—Pluto and Charon. These dynamics affirm we are looking at a true binary planet system—the only one in our solar system.

Astronomers who study binary stars have been inspired by Pluto-Charon, thinking of it as an analogue to the systems they research, only much clo
The Pluto system has even been seen as an analogue of Jupiter and the Galilean moons. Three of those four moons, Io, Europa, and Ganymede, orbit Jupiter in the same resonance as that at which the small moons orbit Pluto-Charon, repeating the same cycle again and again.

Like Pluto’s small moons, all four Galilean moons never all line up at the same time. This configuration helps stabilize their orbits by minimizing the gravitational strengths between the satellites.

The sizes of Pluto’s four small satellites relative to Pluto are similar to the sizes of the Galilean moons relative to Jupiter. The key difference in the two systems is the Galilean moons orbit one object rather than two.

And this is only the beginning…

In early July, New Horizons will begin spectroscopy, which will identify the composition of Pluto’s surface. Then comes mapping of Pluto and Charon, study of atmospheric patterns, and measuring the solar wind, high energy particles, and dust particles in the environment around Pluto.

Every Tuesday until the flyby, members of the mission team are presenting updates on NASATV at . The updates air live at 11:30 AM EDT, then replay at 3:30 PM, 7:30 PM, 11:30 PM, and 7:30 AM the next day, all EDT.

Recordings of the updates are also posted on NASA’s YouTube channel at .

I am covering the New Horizons mission for the website Spaceflight Insider, at . Dating back to August 2014, my articles on the mission can be found at .

From July 13-15, I will be at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab (JHUAPL) for events surrounding the flyby as a correspondent for Spaceflight Insider. Of course, I will also be posting on this blog.

Naturally, with so much attention on Pluto, the issue of its planet status is coming up a lot. The diehard supporters of the IAU decision are going on record stating how interesting Pluto will be, how much they love Pluto, how much they are looking forward to the flyby—but no matter what is learned, Pluto will never be a planet because it does not “clear its orbit.”

But many more are questioning just what “clearing its orbit” means. Looking at what is clearly a binary system, a primary object with a polar cap and one of the most complex, contrasty bodies in the solar system, they do not see something that is just one of many rocks or “dirty snowballs” among thousands in the Kuiper Belt.

They see a system that is unique and in some ways more like Earth than any other solar system planet.

Is Pluto’s status a separate issue from its science? That is a matter of opinion, but I say no. The science—not a tiny group of “experts”—will tell us what this object is. And those doing that science, obtaining this data for the first time in human history, are the ones who will write the textbooks about Pluto.

In 85 years, we’ve gone from a tiny dot to not just a world but a complex system.

When I go to JHUAPL next month, there will be a personal sadness I never could have anticipated. I had been rooting for the late Patsy Tombaugh to get her wish of living to see the flyby. She would have been 102. Sadly, she died in January 2012 at age 99.

But I never expected my dad to not make it to the flyby. He would have been 83 and was vibrant and healthy until an unknown illness that we suspect to be myeloma snuck up on him and took him from us on March 19 of this year.

Only a few days before he fell into a coma, he had asked me, “How’s Pluto?”
I want to imagine him watching the flyby along with the Tombaughs, Venetia Burney Phair (the little girl who named Pluto), and so many other Pluto huggers who have passed on in luminous forms, at one with the Force, much like Obi Wan Kenobi, Yoda, and Anakin Skywater appeared in the victory celebration at the end of Return of the Jedi.

May the Force be with New Horizons and with the entire Pluto system!

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Friday, June 12, 2015

The Year of Pluto Promo

Must watch premiering TODAY June 12th, 10 am ET on NASA TV and online..
Friday, June 12 @ 10 a.m., 1 p.m. , 8 p.m.; Saturday, June 13 @ 6 a.m., 4 p.m., 9 p.m.; Sunday, June 14 @ 8 a.m., 1 p.m. , 8 p.m.
Brand new documentary: "Year of Pluto"..
Here is the Promo:

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Mission Updates: Countdown to Pluto - June 9, 2015

Published on Jun 9, 2015

Follow New Horizons on its incredible journey as it nears the edge of the planetary system and speeds toward a historic July 14 flyby of Pluto. We don’t know what we’ll learn about Pluto and its moons—all the science team is predicting is to “expect to be surprised.” In this four-part series you’ll hear from the scientists and engineers behind New Horizons, as they set the stage for encounter. Topics include a mission and science overviews, a look at the spacecraft and its seven science instruments, and what we know about Pluto to date. Part 1: Mission Overview

Friday, June 5, 2015

New Horizons NASA Social: Watch Live on June 6

It’s a preview of all things Pluto! New Horizons is the focus of the next NASA Social event, on Saturday, June 6, at 1 p.m. EDT, and you can watch it live on NASA UStream, here: . This preview of the mission and its historic flyby of Pluto actually takes place in two locations: Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona – where Pluto was discovered in 1930; and the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland – home to mission management and New Horizons spacecraft operations. The broadcast, originating from APL, will include looks at mission science, the spacecraft, Pluto flyby plans, and a preview of the Eyes on the Solar System’s special Pluto Encounter mode here:

Follow along on NASA TV here: and online at

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Pluto-Palooza : Denver Museum of Nature & Science

Pluto-Palooza : Denver Museum of Nature & Science

For those of you in Denver, don't miss this Pluto-Palooza, Wednesday, June 10, 7 PM, Denver Museum of Nature and Science.

NASA to Hold Media Call to Discuss Surprising Observations of Pluto's Moons

WASHINGTON, May 28, 2015 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- NASA will host a media teleconference at 1 p.m. EDT on Wednesday, June 3, to discuss the Hubble Space Telescope's surprising observations of how Pluto's moons behave, and how these new discoveries are being used in the planning for the New Horizons Pluto flyby in July.

Participants in the teleconference will be:

John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington
Mark Showalter, senior research scientist at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California
Douglas Hamilton, professor of astronomy at the University of Maryland, College Park
John Spencer, scientist at Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado
Heidi Hammel, executive vice president of the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy in Washington
To participate by phone, reporters must contact Felicia Chou at 202-358-0257 or and provide their media affiliation no later than 10 a.m. Wednesday.

Audio of the teleconference will be streamed live at:

For information about NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, visit:

For information about Pluto and NASA's New Horizons mission, visit:

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Tuesday, April 28, 2015

NASA to Hold Media Call on Latest Images of Pluto from New Horizons Spacecraft

NASA to Hold Media Call on Latest Images of Pluto from New Horizons Spacecraft

This teleconference on the latest New Horizons Pluto images will be streamed live tomorrow, Wednesday, April 29 at 3:30 PM EDT at . Please adjust for your time zone.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Nine Reasons Why Pluto Is a Planet - Philip Metzger

Planetary scientist Phil Metzger has written a very comprehensive, logical article titled"Nine Reasons Why Pluto Is A Planet," and his is one of the best-written articles I have read on this subject in nearly a decade. It successfully rebuts many arguments used by supporters of the IAU definition. I highly recommend all Pluto supporters take the time to read this and learn about why Pluto is not a comet, is not too small to be a planet, and much more.

Nine Reasons Why Pluto Is a Planet - Philip Metzger

Monday, April 13, 2015

New Horizons briefings tomorrow will be broadcast live on NASA TV

In his latest PI Perspective at , New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern discusses the beginning of the mission's Approach Phase 2, which started on April 5.

Tomorrow, Tuesday, April 14, NASA will conduct two briefings on the New Horizons mission, both of which can be viewed live on NASA TV at . The first will be at 1 PM Eastern Daylight Time (adjust for other time zones) and is titled, "New Horizons Media Briefing: Seeing Pluto as Never Before (all channels)." The second will be at 2:30 Eastern Daylight Time (adjust for other time zones) and is titled, "New Horizons Media Briefing: Getting to Pluto (NTV-3 (Media))."

The briefings will also be broadcast on this site:

Recordings of the both briefings will be available on NASA TV for those whose schedules do not permit them to watch the briefings live.

I also discuss Approach Phase 2 in my latest article for "Spaceflight Insider" at

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Another Poll! Vote Yes, Pluto is a Planet!

Results of this poll will be sent to the IAU. Currently, the results are 54 percent for Pluto and 46 percent against.

The site presents arguments for both sides of this debate. Interestingly, it erroneously attributes the discovery of Eris solely to Mike Brown, when the reality is that Eris was discovered by a team of three astronomers, the other two being Chad Trujillo and David Rabinowitz. Significantly, Rabinowitz signed Alan Stern's petition rejecting the IAU planet definition and demotion of Pluto.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Tomorrow--Yuri's Night New Horizons Google+ Hangout

As part of tomorrow's annual commemoration of Yuri's Night, celebrating Yuri Gagarin becoming the first human in space on April 12, 1961, a special New Horizons Google+ Hangout will be held at 2 PM EDT (1 PM Central Time, 12 Noon Mountain Time, 11 AM Pacific Time). All are invited to join at or . Both addresses lead to the Hangout. These events have a section where you can type in questions which the presenters can see and often answer in public. If you miss the Hangout, there will be a video recording of it on Google+ and YouTube.