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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