Tag Archives: Will Grundy

New Horizons reveals much, raises questions about Pluto

I overheard a little academic snark after a recent University of Washington astronomy colloquium. “It must be nice to be a planetary scientist,” said one attendee. “The answer to everything is, ‘I don’t know.’”


Will Grundy. Photo: Lowell Observatory.

The topic of the day was Pluto, and the speaker was astronomer Will Grundy of Lowell Observatory. Grundy is a co-investigator for the New Horizons mission that flew past Pluto last July and will be beaming data back to Earth through the end of this year. He heads up the mission’s surface composition science theme team.

To be sure, Grundy’s talk was peppered with words like probably, puzzle, conjecture, speculation, and, yes, “We don’t know.” To be fair, we have learned quite a lot from a spectacular collection of snapshots beamed back to Earth from a dwarf planet three billion miles away. UW astronomy professor Don Brownlee talked about the scientific achievement, and the advances of the last 50 years, in his introduction of Grundy.

“Mariner 4 went to Mars and took 22 exciting pictures which we would now think were absolute dirt because they were 200 by 200 pixels and had very poor signal-to-noise ratio,” Brownlee said. “We’ve had this fantastic half-century of discovery of things where objects in the solar system went from dots to actual worlds. The last first-time is Pluto.”

One thing that we know fairly definitively is the variety of materials that are on Pluto’s surface. Grundy, who is a spectroscoper, showed many of the colorful images that reveal which compounds are there.

“The outer solar system would be a really colorful place if our eyes could just see a little farther out into the infrared,” Grundy noted, “but I guess it wasn’t advantageous to us running around on the African savannah to be able to distinguish methane ice from nitrogen ice.”

Psychedelic Pluto

“The outer solar system would be a really colorful place if our eyes could just see a little farther out into the infrared,” says New Horizons scientist Will Grundy. Mission scientists made this false color image of Pluto using a technique called principal component analysis to highlight the many subtle color differences between Pluto’s distinct regions. Image Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI.

Many other images showed the fascinating and varied terrain of Pluto, and this is where a lot of the we-don’t-knows come in. There are features that look for all the world like drainage canals, but it’s way too cold on Pluto for liquids. Perhaps the features were caused by glaciers, or some material we don’t know about. Other areas show what look like sand dunes with ripples on them, but Pluto’s atmosphere is too thin to blow sand around. Perhaps there was a thicker ancient atmosphere. Each photo revealed amazing detail and features, and many may well remain mysteries until more data can be collected.

“All of these different things are going on on different time scales,” Grundy said. “Sorting out the processes that we’re seeing here is going to be a fun challenge.”

The images are truly remarkable, though Grundy suggested they’re even better in higher resolution than he could display on the lecture-room screen. He suggested delving into the New Horizons image archive for some good viewing.

Pluto may seem insignificant to some, especially in light of its reclassification to dwarf planet, but Grundy said it’s well worth it to explore the “cold fringes of the solar system.”

“These things are really faint, really far away, really hard to get to, not huge,” he said. “Arguably they are the debris that’s left over from the formation of the giant planets, and they preserve a lot of clues about the planet-formation process specific to our solar system and perhaps general solar systems more broadly.”

“From my point of view, I’m just interested in exploration, just seeing what the objects out there are like.” Grundy continued. “If you like geology, or real estate, most of the solar system’s solid surface is out there.”

As New Horizons continues to beam back data it collected during last summer’s fly-by, it also is zipping toward another Kuiper Belt object, 2014 MU69, at which it will arrive on New Year’s Day 2019.

There’s another chance to catch Grundy’s presentation about Pluto coming up this weekend. He is scheduled to give a talk titled “Pluto and Charon Up-close” at 2:15 p.m. Sunday, May 22 at the PACCAR IMAX Theater at the Pacific Science Center. It’s part of the center’s on-going observance of AstronoMay.


AstronoMay kicks off at PacSci

Pacific Science CenterWhy settle for one astronomy day when you can have AstronoMay? Astronomy Day is May 14, but the Pacific Science Center has the whole month packed with astronomy activities. The first is coming up at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, May 5 in the center’s Willard Smith Planetarium, which will hook up with the Adler Planetarium and others around the country for an interactive, networked lecture, “From The Big Bang To The Multiverse And Beyond.” The talk will be given by Dr. Michael Turner of the University of Chicago, a noted cosmologist credited with coining the term dark energy. Turner will delve into what we know and also tackle some of the mysteries and puzzles of cosmology today.

Other lectures planned for AstronoMay:

  • Elena Amador, a UW graduate student in Earth and Space Sciences, presents, “Search for Water on Mars” May 14 at 10 a.m.
  • Dr. Sandeep Singh, planetary scientist at the Bear Fight Institute, presents “Saturn’s Hazy Moon, Titan” May 14 at 2:30 p.m.
  • Dr. Will Grundy of Lowell Observatory presents “Pluto & Charon Up-Close” May 22 at 2:15 p.m.

The lectures are free with admission to the Pacific Science Center, but tickets are required and available online.

On Saturdays during May, and on Sunday, May 22, volunteers from the Seattle Astronomical Society will be set up on the courtyard of the center with solar telescopes for safe viewing of the Sun. All month long there will be exhibits and hands-on activities about space and astronomy, and planetarium presentations (our calendar has the schedule) and IMAX movies, including A Beautiful Planet 3D.

AstronoMay website and calendar.

Club news

Tacoma Astronomical SocietyArea astronomy clubs are busy this week. The Tacoma Astronomical Society will hold its monthly meeting at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 3 in room 175 of Thompson Hall at the University of Puget Sound. There will be a presentation by Michael Laine, president of the Liftport Group, which is drawing up plans for a lunar elevator. The club will hold one of its free public nights at 9 p.m. Saturday, May 7 at the Fort Steilacoom campus of Pierce College. The TAS student group will make a presentation about the solar system. Observing will happen if weather permits.

Spokane Astronomical SocietyThe Spokane Astronomical Society will hold its monthly meeting at 7:30 p.m. Friday, May 6 at the planetarium at Spokane Falls Community College. Stefanie Milam, a project scientist with the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, will give a presentation on either the James Webb Space Telescope or recent discoveries of sugar and ethanol in comets. They note the latter represents all of the makings for a wild star party.

Olympic Astronomical Society will hold its 12th annual spring Camp Delaney Star Party May 4-8 out at Sun Lakes State Park near Coulee City in Eastern Washington. Club members already on site recommend industrial strength bug protection as the mosquitos are out in force. Note the preregistration was required for the event.

Supernova impostor

Brianna Binder

Breanna Binder. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

Dr. Breanna Binder of the University of Washington will give an astronomy colloquium at 4 p.m. Thursday, May 5 in the Physics/Astronomy Auditorium on the UW campus in Seattle. Binder will talk about supernova 2010da, which is not really a supernova, but an interesting object with a high-luminosity, variable X-ray emission. The X-ray emission is consistent with accretion onto a neutron star, making SN 2010da both a supernova impostor and likely high mass X-ray binary. Binder gave a talk about x-ray binary systems last August at the Seattle Astronomical Society’s monthly meeting.

Space Day at Museum of Flight

moflogoThursday is not only Cinco de Mayo, it is Space Day at the Museum of Flight. It’s part of the Museum’s free first Thursday from 5 p.m. until 9 p.m. Local astronomy clubs will be on hand with information, and telescopes for observing if weather permits.

Open House at TJO

There will be an open house at the University of Washington’s Theodor Jacobsen Observatory at 9 p.m. Wednesday, May 4. As of this writing the schedule for the events talks by undergraduate students had not been published online. Volunteers from the Seattle Astronomical Society will be on hand to offer observatory tours, and perhaps a peek through its vintage six-inch 1892 Warner and Swasey telescope with Brashear objective.

Up in the sky

The Eta Aquarid meteor shower peaks this week. Learn about the shower and other observing highlights for the week from This Week’s Sky at a Glance by Sky & Telescope magazine or The Sky This Week from Astronomy.


Astronomy on Tap Seattle debuts in new venue

One of our favorite local astronomy events moves to a new venue for the first time and is the highlight of our calendar this week.

AoT April 27, 2016At this month’s Astronomy on Tap Seattle the newest University of Washington professor of astronomy, Jessica Werk, will give a talk titled, “The History of You: The Rather Tumultuous Past of the Atoms in Your Body.” UW graduate student Ethan Kruse will give a talk titled, “To Infinity and Beyond: The Mind-boggling Scale of the Universe.” The event will be held at 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 27 at Hilliard’s Beer Taphouse in Ballard.

Astronomy on Tap Seattle is a free monthly event organized by graduate students in astronomy at the University of Washington. It spent its first year at Bad Jimmy’s Brewing Company but has outgrown that space, and is moving to the larger Hilliard’s just a hop and a skip up Leary Way.

Dawn in the asteroid belt

Ron HobbsThe Eastside Astronomical Society will hold its monthly meeting at 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 27 at the Lake Hills Library in Bellevue. NASA Solar System Ambassador Ron Hobbs will give a presentation about our modern understanding of the belt of minor planets between Mars and Jupiter. He will discuss the Juno mission that is on its way to Jupiter and what we might learn about the giant planet’s role in the creation of the feature we call the asteroid belt.

Closeup of Pluto


Will Grundy. Photo: Lowell Observatory.

We won’t even have all of the data from Pluto back from New Horizons until late this year, but we’ve already learned a lot about the former ninth planet. Astronomer Will Grundy of Lowell Observatory will be at the University of Washington this week to talk about some of the scientific highlights and puzzles that the New Horizons science team is investigating. He will also briefly touch on plans for January 2019 when New Horizons will get the first up-close look at a small Kuiper belt object. The talk , part of the UW astronomy colloquia series, will be at 4 p.m. Thursday, April 28 in room A102 of the Physics/Astronomy Building on the UW campus in Seattle.

Up in the sky

You can catch transits of Jupiter’s moons Io and Europa on Friday evening. This Week’s Sky at a Glance from Sky & Telescope magazine and The Sky This Week from Astronomy have other observing highlights for the week.