Tag Archives: Pluto

The amazing story of New Horizons

The New Horizons spacecraft is hurtling through deep space toward its New Year’s Day encounter with the Kuiper Belt object “Ultima Thule,” a nickname which is better than the object’s official moniker of 2014 MU69. New Horizons collected amazing photos and data during a 2015 fly-by of Pluto, and I’ve just finished reading the account of that mission, Chasing New Horizons: Inside the Epic First Mission to Pluto (Picador, 2018). Penned by New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern and astrobiologist and author David Grinspoon, Chasing New Horizons is a fabulous read that tells the tale of the nearly 25 years it took to get the mission from a back-of-the-napkin concept to a real spacecraft that delivered those amazing images of the former ninth planet.

Stern and Grinspoon visited Seattle in May in support of the book. Grinspoon called the tale of New Horizons an unlikely story.

“The effort to send a mission to Pluto,” he said, “was one that had so many twists and turns, seeming dead ends, and inescapable traps that it’s still amazing to me that it happened.”

“I think there’s a lot of genuine suspense and drama, and yet, you know how it ends!” Grinspoon added. “It really is an adventure story as well as a nerd-fest of solving technical problems and ultimately succeeding spectacularly in this amazing exploration.”

The story truly is incredible. The New Horizons team that at its biggest included 2,500 people had to battle from the beginning. The first fight was simply getting approval just to do some preliminary work on a project as audacious as sending a mission to Pluto. They had to compete over whose proposed project would be selected, to get funding, to decide what science would happen, to actually build, launch, and fly the craft, to get it to the right place at the right time, and to deliver the science that was promised. Stern said they euphemistically referred to their challenges with the resident reptiles around the Kennedy Space Center in mind.

“There were so many alligators in the water at one point that we had no idea how we could solve all of the problems that we were having,” Stern said.

Yet—spoiler alert!—they did, and they accomplished it for a fraction of the cost of the Voyager mission, for example, and in a time frame that, by NASA standards, was break-neck.

Grinspoon and Stern

Grinspoon (left) and Stern spoke about Chasing New Horizons at a Town Hall Seattle event at the Museum of Flight on May 17, 2018. Photo: Greg Scheiderer

Grinspoon interviewed Stern and more than two dozen others for the book, so it is really something of an oral history of New Horizons team members’ recollections of what happened along the amazing journey.

All of the jockeying makes for interesting storytelling, but the near loss of the mission just days before it’s Pluto fly-by, and how that was solved, is an incredible tale. Many of the team were taking a quick breather before the fly-by and trying to enjoy the Independence Day holiday when contact with New Horizons was lost. The work the team did to figure out what happened, to fix the problem, and to make sure the craft’s computers were ready for the complicated maneuvers ahead, is simply remarkable. Imagine doing that work around-the-clock with the whole mission hanging in the balance. For Stern, there was the real possibility that 25 years of work could go down the drain. That’s a whole lot of egg aimed right at your face. Cool heads, smart engineers, preparation, and a little luck prevailed. The science we got out of it is amazing.

“Pluto is an exotic, sci-fi world,” Stern said. “This book is a page-turner; it is a techno-thriller.”

You don’t necessarily want the author writing his own dust-jacket blurbs, but in this case we agree! Chasing New Horizons is highly recommended.

Last month New Horizons, about 100 million miles away from Ultima Thule, was able to spot its next destination with its own cameras, something the team announced on Twitter.

If you read Chasing New Horizons you’ll have an idea of what the team has ahead between now and its fly-by on January 1.

Further reading:


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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.

Astronomy on Tap takes a look at the first Pluto pics from New Horizons

Back in the olden days of 1979 I took an undergraduate course in astronomy at the University of Washington. The Voyager spacecraft had just visited Jupiter and the astronomy faculty were positively giddy about the new photos, data, and knowledge coming in from the largest planet in our solar system. The excitement is perhaps even greater as we digest the first images from New Horizons, which buzzed Pluto earlier this week and got our first really close look at what used to be the ninth planet.

“It’s discovering a new planet that we already knew existed,” said Brett Morris, a UW graduate student in astronomy, at a special Pluto-palooza version of Astronomy on Tap Seattle Wednesday evening at Bad Jimmy’s Brewing Company in Ballard.

The icy mountains of Pluto. Photo: NASA-JHUAPL-SwRI.

The icy mountains of Pluto. Photo: NASA-JHUAPL-SwRI.

Morris said the biggest discovery in the first batch of close-ups of Pluto is that, in a section of the dwarf planet’s “heart,” now named “Tombaugh Regio” after its discoverer, Clyde Tombaugh, there are no craters.

“This suggests that the surface is less than 100 million years old,” Morris said. While that may seem like a long time, it’s a mere blink of an eye astronomically and geologically.

“This is really young, and that was a huge surprise,” Morris said. “This is the biggest surprise of the day. The surface must be active.” He added that we have no idea yet how this could be happening, and that scientists didn’t expect to find such a thing.

Another interesting finding were tall mountains in that photo.

Brett Morris

UW grad student Brett Morris talked about the history of Pluto and the first photos from New Horizons at Astronomy on Tap Seattle July 15. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

“We believe that these mountains are water-ice mountains eleven thousand feet tall,” Morris said, explaining that ice of methane or carbon monoxide would crumble at that height, but that water ice, in a place as cold as Pluto, would be as hard as rock.

“Imagine an ice cube the size of Mt. Rainier,” Morris said. “That’s what we’re looking at.”

Pluto’s largest moon, Charon, has material at its north pole that is darker than the rest of its surface which, like Pluto’s, also appears to be active. They’ve also spotted a large canyon on Charon.

“That canyon is twice as deep as the Grand Canyon, it stretches across a significant chunk of Charon,” Morris explained. “It’s either a really big crater or a valley carved out by something.”

The small moon Hydra appears to be made entirely of ice.

“This is a 30-mile hunk of ice sitting out there orbiting Pluto,” Morris said.

This animation combines various observations of Pluto over the course of several decades. The first frame is a digital zoom-in on Pluto as it appeared upon its discovery by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930 (image courtesy Lowell Observatory Archives). The other images show various views of Pluto as seen by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope beginning in the 1990s and NASA's New Horizons spacecraft in 2015. The final sequence zooms in to a close-up frame of Pluto released on July 15, 2015.

Click to view this animation, which combines various observations of Pluto over the course of several decades. The first frame is a digital zoom-in on Pluto as it appeared upon its discovery by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930 (image courtesy Lowell Observatory Archives). The other images show various views of Pluto as seen by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope beginning in the 1990s and NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft in 2015. The final sequence zooms in to a close-up frame of Pluto released on July 15, 2015.

The photos returned by New Horizons are far better than any images of Pluto captured by the Hubble Space Telescope.

“The Hubble Space Telescope tried really hard to give us good images of Pluto, but that’s really difficult because it’s so far away,” Morris said. The telescope was able to see bright and dark regions on Pluto, but that was about it. Hubble also was used to search the Pluto system for rings, moons, and other objects that could be a hazard to the speeding spacecraft.

“At 15 kilometers a second, if there’s a piece of rice in your way it will destroy your spacecraft,” Morris noted. Four of Pluto’s five known moons were discovered by Hubble during this process.

Morris noted that it’s going to take a while for New Horizons to send us all the data it has collected during its flyby of Pluto. The spacecraft is equipped with what he says is essentially a 200-megabyte modem that only contacts Earth every once in a while.

“This is worse than AOL!” he quipped. We should keep receiving photos and data from New Horizons through November of 2016, so we have a lot of cool new discoveries to look forward to. May we be fortunate enough to enjoy a cold brew with each one of them!

Tenth anniversary of the beginning of the end for Pluto

It’s hard to believe it has been a decade already since Mike Brown and his Caltech team discovered the dwarf planet Eris and inadvertently kicked off the brouhaha that eventually resulted in Pluto being “demoted” from its status as our solar system’s ninth planet. Brown and company discovered Eris on January 5, 2005, from images shot in October 2003.

How I Killed PlutoSome years later we read three books about the demotion of Pluto: Brown’s How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming; Neil deGrasse Tyson’s The Pluto Files: The Rise and Fall of America’s Favorite Planet; and The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference by Alan Boyle, science editor for NBCNews.com and author of Cosmic Log.

All three books are great reads; I reviewed them in 2011 and noted that the authors voted 2-1 in favor of Pluto’s demotion as a planet. Boyle cast the lone dissenting vote. Brown’s book was especially interesting for its inside story of how the discovery came about, and how the search for Trans-Neptunian Objects changed his life. It may well be worth a re-read this month on the ten-year anniversary of the discovery.

Let’s get Pluto and New Horizons on a postage stamp


Postage doubled between the time of Project Mercury and the Moon landing. And airmail was all the way up to a dime. Stamps from the Greg Scheiderer collection.

I find it fascinating how often my interest in space and astronomy sends me off on a mental trip to another place and time. Beyond the notion that my eyeball often captures photons that left their point of origin before the dawn of human civilization, I sometimes find that the hobby moves me around even within my own lifetime.

It happened again today. I learned during my morning reading about the newly launched effort to get the U.S. Postal Service to issue a commemorative stamp depicting the New Horizons mission to Pluto. This leads me to a confession: I’m a former philatelist.

This is a deep, dark secret that not even my wife knew about. I hadn’t had the stamp album out of the box in probably 40 years. Yet the thing kept following me through nine moves, and probably even more efforts to jettison junk. Somehow, this morning, I found the box, opened it up, and went in search of some of those space stamps I remember so well. As the collected works spread out to take up most of the dining room table, my wife walked in and, with a puzzled look, asked “What’s all that stuff.” Well, its the stamp collection, of course. (It had been in that box she kept asking me to move to another spot after the latest move, back into the house after last year’s remodeling project.)

More stamps

Many nations issued stamps commemorating space heroes. Here is a stamp from Mongolia depicting Yuri Gagarin, a Qatar stamp of Neil Armstrong, one from Romania with Wally Schirra, and a Hungarian stamp of John Glenn. From the Greg Scheiderer collection.

Among the valued items in my stamp box are my stamp collecting merit badge pamphlet and my handwritten notes, on 3×5 cards, for the presentation I made to earn the badge. In the notes I listed three reasons for stamp collecting: money, fun, and learning about other countries. At least one of those is true; stamp collecting is the only reason I know where Qatar is. The Middle-Eastern country issued some gorgeous stamps in the day. Though, now that I think about it, I’m having fun with it today, too! As for the money part, I don’t expect that the stamps a 12-year-old could buy in 1969 for 50 cents per bag amount to much cash value, but if you’re an appraiser who found this post by Googling “million-dollar space stamps” please let me know. (I’ll find a way to monitize this blog yet!)

I wonder if my interest in space had something to do with my interest in stamp collecting. As a kid growing up in the 1960s I was fascinated by the space race, and the stamps of many countries depicted the achievements of space adventures. This wasn’t limited to the United States and the Soviet Union. Many countries issued space commemoratives. Soviet-bloc nations were big on what the Russians were doing, but even tiny places like Dominica, Togo, and Rwanda issued space stamps. Space exploration and the Moon landing captured the imagination of the entire world, not just little space dreamers like me. Somehow my stamp collection languished for four decades. But today I’m glad I have it.

Proposed Pluto stamp

Concept art by Dan Durda for a postage stamp commemorating the New Horizons mission to Pluto. The New Horizons team is pushing for the stamp through an online petition to the U.S. Postal Service.

I’m a big fan of Pluto and think the stamp idea is a worthy one. If we’re going to stick with busting Pluto down to dwarf status, the least we can do is to remind snail-mail users and stamp collectors that the first space mission out that way is due to arrive in July 2015. Organizers say we’ve got to start now in order to have the stamp ready for sticking in three years. It can take that long to navigate the red tape!

So go here and sign the online petition to request a Pluto and New Horizons stamp. The aim is to collect 100,000 signatures to send to the USPS, and they’ve got 4,300 of them as of this writing. That’s not much progress, but the effort is just under way, and getting a boost from the likes of the Emily Lakdawalla of the Planetary Society, Alan Boyle at Cosmic Log, Space.com, Sky & Telescope, and a host of others. Boyle is a big Pluto fan and is the author of The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference, one of three books about the ex-planet about which I wrote last year.

Let’s show our love for space nuts, stamp collectors, and dwarf planets. Power to Pluto!

Authors vote 2-1 against Pluto

Authors of what I call the “Pluto Trilogy” vote 2-1 against planethood for the distant icy world. I just completed reading three recent books about Pluto: How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming by Mike Brown, Caltech astronomer and discoverer of Eris; The Pluto Files: The Rise and Fall of America’s Favorite Planet by Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York; and The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference by Alan Boyle, science editor for MSNBC.com and author of Cosmic Log.

Research scientists sometimes turn out prose that isn’t accessible for the non-Ph.D. In How I Killed Pluto Brown, however, weaves an entertaining, witty, and sometimes poetic tale about the years of work that went into the discovery of Eris, a Kuiper Belt object thought to be just a little bigger than Pluto. One need not be an astronomer to appreciate the detailed account of the search for the “tenth planet”, nor a detective to appreciate Brown’s story of the controversy surrounding credit for the discovery of Haumea, now the fourth-largest known dwarf planet in our solar system. The interweaving of stories about Brown’s personal life during the hunt are endearing.

One could not have faulted Brown for holding out for full planet status for Pluto. That would have given him status as discoverer of the tenth planet. As a scientist, though, he believes Eris and Pluto have more in common with the thousands of Kuiper Belt objects than they do with the big eight, and is happy to have them thought of and categorized differently.

While Brown’s discoveries forced the hand of the International Astronomical Union on establishing its controversial definition of planet, it was Tyson and the Hayden Planetarium that inadvertently ignited the Pluto debate when Eris was not even yet a dim, slow-moving glint on Brown’s computer screen.

“I keep getting blamed for Pluto,” Tyson said at a speaking engagement in Seattle last month. “Eleven years ago we opened an exhibit in New York City where we grouped Pluto with other icy brethren in the outer solar system, and the nation’s population of elementary school children got pissed off.”

The Pluto Files is full of letters from those children and cartoons from various points of view in the debate. While the actual IAU debate and vote is almost an afterthought in Brown’s book, Tyson gives it fairly detailed treatment.

Tyson said that the planetarium didn’t set out to cause trouble, but simply considered, in the design of their exhibits, the recent discoveries of thousands of Kuiper Belt objects.

“Some of them have orbital properties that greatly resemble that of Pluto,” he said during his Seattle talk. “So Pluto has brethren out there. Pluto and they look more alike, than either they or Pluto look like any of the other eight planets, and we figured it was time for Pluto to own up to its actual identity.”

Oddly enough, the exhibit was up and running for almost a year without a peep before the New York Times finally took notice and ran a front-page article lamenting that Pluto wasn’t a planet, at least in New York. The mail barrage was on.

Boyle is the most sympathetic to Pluto. In my coverage of his talk here last year, I wrote, “Alan Boyle thinks Pluto should be considered a planet, but ultimately believes a lot of people are taking the question way too seriously.”

The Case for Pluto delves deepest into the IAU deliberations, and includes text of all of the various resolutions about the definition of planet. It’s a great read, full of humorous observations about the personalities involved and the gyrations people go to in order to come to grips with their Pluto issues.

All three books are engaging reads and highly recommended for those interested in Pluto and the solar system. They’re not likely to be the last words, either. Bloggers know that Pluto generates a lot of hits, and publishers are surely watching to see how many books the dwarf planet will sell.

Tyson talk highlights this week’s Seattle Astronomy calendar

Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson

Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson will speak Thursday in Meany Hall at the University of Washington in Seattle.

Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist and director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City, will speak at 6:30 p.m. this Thursday, May 12, in Meany Hall at the University of Washington in Seattle. The room has changed; the lecture was set for Kane Hall when originally announced.

Tyson’s talk will be titled “Adventures of an Astrophysicist.” He will discuss how he takes some of the flak for Pluto’s demotion from planethood. Tyson will also share anecdotes from his time as space policy advisor to NASA, to the Bush White House, and to school systems. Tyson will further reflect on the Obama space plan, Mars Rovers, the search for life, Dark Matter, Dark Energy, the Large Hadron Collider and progress on a theory of everything.

The talk is free, but all of the tickets are spoken for. You might have a shot to get in if you line up beforehand. Organizers will start giving away unclaimed tickets beginning at 6:15 on the evening of the event. UW Television also will stream the lecture live.

Big Bang Theory by Spencer Charles

Big Bang Theory by Spencer Charles will be one of the works on display at Greenwood Space Travel Supply Company this weekend during the Greenwood-Phinney Art Walk.

Science art in Greenwood Friday and Saturday
The Greenwood-Phinney Art Walk is happening this Friday, May 13 from 6 p.m. until 9 p.m. and Saturday, May 14 from noon until 5 p.m. Our friends at the Greenwood Space Travel Supply Company will turn their store into a gallery where nine participants in 826 Seattle will display works illustrating scientific principles. They’ll have an opening reception going on during the art walk hours on Friday.

A look through the Keck Telescope
Tacoma Astronomical Society hosts a free public observing night beginning at 9 p.m. Saturday, May 14 at the W.M. Keck Observatory on the campus of Pacific Lutheran University in Parkland. Good weather will mean a look through the main scope, as well as through others that TAS members bring. If it clouds up, talks and other events may occur. Watch the TAS website for details and for directions to the observatory.

Table Mountain Star Party registration open
Early registration for this year’s Table Mountain Star Party, scheduled for July 28-30, opened May 1. The fee this year is $60 for adults, $40 for additional adults arriving in the same vehicle, and $15 for students age 7 to 17. Kids six and under get in free. After May 31, the prices in the first three categories go up by $10. You can sign up online.