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Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Another Online Poll: Vote for Pluto to be Classed as a Planet!

With Pluto getting so much attention as New Horizons begins its reconnaissance of the planet and its moons, yet another publication online, the British, has posted a poll asking whether Pluto should be classed as a planet.
Please visit , read the article, and scroll down to the poll, "Should Pluto be Classified as a Planet?" and vote yes!

Voting is open to all. You do not have to be British or have an account with the site to participate.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Pluto and the Solar System: A Google+ Hangout with NASA and PBS Learning Media

How many times has the issue of education about the solar system come up over the past eight years? The Great Planet Debate of 2008 hosted a workshop for elementary and secondary teachers on teaching the controversy rather than just stating the solar system has such and such number of planets, and that's it, case closed. Tomorrow night, Wednesday, January 28, from 7-8 PM EST, NASA and PBS Learning Media are hosting a Google+ hangout to discuss educating students about the New Horizons mission. If you do not have an account on Google+, you can create one for free. Everyone who joins the hangout will be able to ask questions through a chat box. Participation in the hangout is free as well. Do not miss this opportunity. You do not have to be a teacher or formal instructor to attend.

Here is the link:

From the site:

"We are going to Pluto this year for the first time with the New Horizons mission! How do you bring your science students along for the ride, and what updates and changes await your Solar System curriculum in the year ahead? PBS LearningMedia™ and NASA are here to help with an inside look at what lies ahead for Solar System science, with a particular focus on pedagogical changes and new educational resources to help your curriculum stay up-to-date in this exciting time for space exploration.

Jeffrey M. Moore, New Horizons Co-Investigator, NASA Ames Research Center
Jeff is the imaging team leader for the New Horizons mission. This activity involves working with the imaging team to define the science observations, plan the observational sequences, and calibrate the camera system. He also served as Chairman of the Jupiter Encounter Sequencing Team for the New Horizons mission, which enjoyed a very successful encounter with the giant planet and its moons in 2007.

Keri Hallau, Montana State University, Department of Physics
Keri Hallau is the Formal Education lead on the Education and Communication team for the New Horizons mission to Pluto. In addition, as the Online Science Curriculum Development Specialist for the Montana State University Department of Physics, she creates curriculum materials for various other NASA missions that include the Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn and Titan, the New Horizons mission to Pluto, and the MESSENGER mission to Mercury.

Rachel Connolly, Director of STEM Education, WGBH

NGSS standards addressed will include:

MS-ESS1-3. Analyze and interpret data to determine scale properties of objects in the solar system.

ESS1.B: Earth and the Solar System
The solar system consists of the sun and a collection of objects, including planets, their moons, and asteroids that are held in orbit around the sun by its gravitational pull on them. (MS-ESS1-2),(MS-ESS1-3)"

Monday, January 26, 2015

We're There! New Horizons Begins Approach Phase 1

On January 15, exactly six months before its closest flyby of the Pluto system, NASA's New Horizons mission officially began the first of three approach phases, meaning its instruments will now begin taking pictures of the planet and its five moons.

Approach Phase 1, which will last until April 4, coincides with several major anniversaries. January 19 marks the ninth anniversary of the mission's launch from Cape Canaveral. Patsy Tombaugh, widow of Pluto discoverer Clyde Tombaugh, then in her 90s, attended the launch. It was a special event for her because some of her husband's ashes are onboard the New Horizons spacecraft.

Patsy had hoped to see the flyby and came reasonably close to doing so. She died at age 99 in 2012. Had she lived, she would now be 102.

Tombaugh took the photographic plate images from which he would discover Pluto on January 21, 23, and 29, 1930.

New Horizons has traveled farther and faster than any other mission toward its primary target. Its nine-year journey traversed three billion miles, to this and as yet unexplored zone of the solar system.

Pluto and its moons will appear as faint dots in the photos taken during this first approach phase. Their purpose is not to provide the impressive close-up images for which so many are waiting. These pictures are being taken for the purpose of optical navigation.

The spacecraft is still 100 million miles from Pluto, and it is traveling at an incredible speed of 27,000 miles per hour. At that speed, impacting even the tiniest piece of dust or debris would destroy it completely.

On January 25, New Horizons' Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI), a long focal length telescopic instrument, began taking high resolution photos of the Pluto system in visible wavelengths for the specific purpose of finding any debris that could threaten the mission. If necessary, a course correction maneuver to avoid such debris will be undertaken.

LORRI's images will serve another important purpose. They will enable the mission team to obtain precise measurements of Pluto's orbital position and its exact distance from New Horizons.

“The flyby timing has to be exact, because the computer commands that will orient the spacecraft and point the science instruments are based on precisely knowing the time we pass Pluto–which these images will help us determine,” explained Mark Holdridge, encounter mission manager at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab (JHUAPL).

LORRI's third goal during this period is observing the dynamics between Pluto and its moons.

At closest approach, the probe will come within 7,700 miles of the Pluto system though it will not orbit the small planet.

Even in this first approach phase, New Horizons will be doing science. Its instruments will measure high energy charged particles in the solar wind and the concentration of dust particles in this region.

With its actual work underway, New Horizons is getting significant media coverage worldwide, as is Pluto. This coverage is raising tremendous awareness about the mission. At the same time, many writers and media outlets are once again repeating the old standby that Pluto was a planet at the time New Horizons was launched but is no longer "officially" a planet now.

This reporting is unfortunate and misleading. Pluto is very much a planet to many planetary scientists and to many on the New Horizons team. There is no scientific reason to give so much weight to the 2006 IAU decision, to grant it an "official" status it does not merit. There is no scientific reason for writers to state that our solar system has only eight planets. After all, it was New Horizons Principal Investigator Dr. Alan Stern who first coined the term "dwarf planet," and his intention was to designate a third class of planets, not to refer to non-planets.

Now is Pluto's moment to shine, its time in the spotlight. Pluto will speak for itself, and I am far from alone in being confident its features will clearly "say" planet.

As Dr. Stern says, “What I am most excited about is taking this point of light and transforming it into a planet.”

There are many ways to follow this exciting mission online. Here are some good sites to watch and follow regularly.

The New Horizons mission website:
NASA's New Horizons website:
Pluto encounter countdown:
New Horizons e-news signup:
New Horizons email alerts:
New Horizons Twitter feed:
Principal Investigator Alan Stern's Twitter feed:
Pluto Picture of the Day:
New Horizons on Facebook:

The February 2015 issue of Astronomy magazine, both in print and online, has a good write up on the New Horizons mission. See .

In addition to following the mission on this blog, I will also be writing about New Horizons for an exciting new website, Spaceflight Insider. Its main page is , and it covers all the news on spaceflight, manned and unmanned, including regular updates on the Dawn mission to Ceres. My latest article on New Horizons can be found at .

Get ready for a wild ride ahead!

Monday, January 19, 2015

Montmerle is wrong

A New York Times article commemorating New Horizons beginning its first approach phase (I will discuss New Horizons more in another entry) to Pluto is mostly fair but gets it wrong at the end with a quote from IAU General Secretary Thierry Montmerle.

The article appears here:

Montmerle arrogantly says, "The vast majority of the international planetary community has clearly accepted this (the IAU's) definition."

He is wrong.

First, the majority of the IAU is made up not of planetary scientists but of other types of astronomers. Planetary scientists have largely ignored the IAU and its definition over the past eight-and-a-half years, after a group of planetary scientists was rebuffed in 2009 when they asked the IAU leadership to reopen the discussion at that year's General Assembly.

The IAU leadership blatantly refused, and these planetary scientists boycotted the General Assembly that year. Many are choosing not to join the IAU at all, and a good number of those who choose to be members do not attend the General Assemblies.

Montmerle is mistaking their ignoring the IAU for silent assent. It is not.

Dawn's findings at Vesta, which show it to be more planet than asteroid; discoveries of unusual exoplanets with weird orbits; data that shows Pluto-Charon to be a binary planet system, and now conjecture that two "Super Earths" of two to 15 Earth masses may lurk unseen in the outer solar system all comprise compelling reasons to revisit the "What is a planet" discussion.

These developments have also led many astronomers to understand we need a rethinking of the concept of planet that takes all this data into account.

Montmerle is engaging in what is known as the first principle of propaganda--that a lie repeated a thousand times becomes the truth. He may believe what he is saying, but how much is he really in touch with the world of planetary science outside of the IAU?

Mike Brown is also quoted in the article as saying he rarely hears Pluto complaints these days. The fact is, people "complaining" or even asking about Pluto already know his position and are more likely to raise the issue with other planetary scientists than with him.

Interestingly, Neil de Grasse Tyson has been strangely silent on this issue of late.

Some scientists feel the status issue distracts from Pluto science, but that does not have to be the case. To interest members of the public in astronomy, it is important to meet them where they are. And "where they are" in terms of many people is awareness of the Pluto controversy and continued discomfort with the IAU definition.

When a member of the public asks about Pluto's status, that is an opening to discuss the science, to talk about Pluto's composition, atmosphere, geology, moon system, etc. It is a chance to talk about New Horizons and what each of its instruments will study. It is an opportunity to introduce people to a world and then let them think about what they learned and draw their own conclusion.

Anything unknown is hard to classify simply because we understand so little about it. These unknown objects constitute the frontier of planetary science, and frontiers are by nature exciting. Mysteries excite people. When someone asks whether Pluto is a planet, why not answer by presenting just what a scientific puzzle it is. Its being a puzzle means we don't have all the answers. That is why there is an ongoing debate--we know a few things about this little world, and those facts result in different interpretations by different people.

After introducing people to the world whose status interests them, why not ask them to consider all they learned and decide for themselves? That would constitute a good exercise in independent thinking.

This year is about seeing Pluto for the first time, about the data and the images. There will be plenty of time for analysis and integration of what we learn to invigorate this debate in coming years.

The discussion of the planet question isn't dying down. It's just beginning.