Pluto flyby

After over 9 years of speeding through space New Horizons probe visited last of the original 9 planets – Pluto. Finally we were suppose to get clear images of Pluto and it’s surface. I asked our panel about how did they feel about the flyby and if they think that it was ok to demote Pluto from a planet status in 2006.
Andrew Rader (SpaceX engineer, MIT PhD, author)

Very exciting to round out the original list of planets. The visit doesn’t officially promote Pluto to planet but it was larger than anticipated, probably larger than Eris. This means that it might qualify for special status. Additionally, even planets like Jupiter and Earth don’t fully qualify for planet status because they haven’t cleared their orbits around the Sun of all other objects. Thus, Pluto’s status might be worth a revisit. Although there’s nothing terribly wrong with being a dwarf planet. Pluto is small, and being a dwarf puts it together with other interesting worlds like Ceres, which I find to be one of the most interesting in the solar system.


Brian Koberlein (astrophysicist and physics professor at Rochester Institute of Technology, author, podcaster, publisher)
I think it’s important to keep in mind that the flyby is just beginning. Yes, New Horizons is speeding away from Pluto now, but we’re only beginning to get the data back from the flyby. It will be months before we have a good idea of what the mission has gathered. So far, I think it was a great success. We now know that Pluto is an active world with geological activity. It has mountains for goodness sake! I’m sure the flyby will have much to tell us about this rich and complex world.

I think people blow the whole “Pluto’s a planet” thing out of proportion. The classification of what makes or doesn’t make a planet is an arbitrary line in the sand that we create. The revised definition was an easy line to draw because the 8 planets are very different from Ceres and Pluto which are significantly smaller. If there wasn’t the emotional attachment to Pluto no one would argue otherwise.
I think it’s important to keep in mind that no one has made Pluto less real, or special or unique. If Pluto is your favorite solar system body, it can still be your favorite. The only thing that has changed is that astronomers have moved Pluto from one arbitrary column to another.


Fraser Cain (publisher at Universetoday.com, co-host of Astronomy Cast)

I feel a special kinship with the New Horizons spacecraft. It was one of the first stories I reported on when I started out in space journalism more than a decade ago, and I watched it all the way through the launch, and its flyby of Jupiter. I knew that our first look at Pluto would be nothing short of amazing; not just with the questions that New Horizons would answer, but the brand new mysteries that it would reveal. New Horizons didn’t disappoint. Nobody expected to see such a young surface on Pluto, with ice mountains! And then Charon turned out to be a completely different looking world with huge cracks and strange features on its surface. We’ll be riveted over the next 16 months as the data trickles in from New Horizons.
Was it a good decision to demote Pluto? I don’t really have an opinion either way. Eris is almost the same size as Pluto, so if Pluto gets to be a planet, shouldn’t Eris be one too? We’re never going back to 9 planets, so you just have to decide, do you want more planets or less? 8 planets or 12?

Robert Novella (co-founder and vice-president of New England Skeptical Society, co-host of Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe)

The flyby was incredibly exciting. Clearly one of the top science stories of the entire year. The fact that we made so many unexpected discoveries (it has extensive geology) and we now have new mysteries to solve is one of the hallmarks of good science.
That fact that New Horizons is exploring the uncharted “Third Zone” of our solar system is also one of those rare missions that will expand our fundamental knowledge by leaps and bounds.

I wasn’t greatly perturbed by the demotion of Pluto. The criteria for planet-hood is ultimately a subjective thing. The real benefit in my opinion was that we now have a more detailed description of what a planet is.


Pamela Gay (assistant research professor at Southern Illinois University, writer, co-host of Astronomy Cast)

The flyby was very much a success. Between New Horizon’s observations of Pluto and Charon and Dawn’s observations of Ceres, we’re getting a new understanding of just how active and how complicated the geology of tiny worlds can be. No one expected what we’re finding, and that means this is science worth doing: our understanding of the universe is being challenged by data that invalidates many of our prior theories. Data always wins and now we get to try again at defining the nature of small body geophysics.

As for Pluto being a planet or not being a planet; Pluto is the exact same icy world it was before. All that has changed is people are now getting rich by giving talks declaring it a Planet and Not a Planet. I don’t care about Pluto’s designation, but I admit to being upset that some people are getting paid for a single talk what the junior scientists studying Pluto earn in a year. People have a right to make a buck, but I had hoped this kind of petty drama-based income could be kept out of science. (I’m also angry that the junior scientist are working sleepless weeks and earning so little, but that’s a different problem.)

Charity

What I wanted to do in the next post was give support to a charitable organizations. I asked our panelists what charity they support and give a little outline of what they do. We created a list of great organizations that change the world for better. Warm welcome to our new panelist – Dr Pamela Gay.
Pamela Gay (assistant research professor at Southern Illinois University, writer, co-host of Astronomy Cast)

My number one charity is (of course) CosmoQuest, which takes donations through the two  501(c)3 organizations, SIUE and Astrosphere.org
I also donate when I can (which isn’t as often as I’d like) to the American Assoc. of University Women, the American Association of Variable Star Astronomers,  Astronomers without Borders, The Astronomical Society of the Pacific, and thePlanetary Society. Organizations are most likely to get my money if they give me a chance to give to a specific campaign, like AWBs Telescopes for Tanzania program or if I can see the specific outcomes of supporting their overall programs.


Fraser Cain (publisher at Universetoday.com, co-host of Astronomy Cast)

If you love astronomy then one of the most important charities to get involved with right now is the International Dark-Sky Association. These are the people working to protect the dark night skies that we’re losing, bit by bit, thanks to ever growing light pollution. They help with education and outreach, and help set up protected dark sky places where astronomers can see the true beauty of the night sky, away from the city lights. Check them out at:http://www.darksky.org/


Nancy Atkinson (Senior Editor for Universe Today, Host of the NASA Lunar Science Institute podcast & a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador)

My favorite space-related charity is Cosmoquest. They provide wonderful opportunities for the public to engage in Citizen Science with their “Mapper” projects, which uses data from spacecraft. You can help scientists do real and important science while you do fun activities to study the Moon, Mars, Mercury and asteroids. Cosmoquest also provides information and lesson plans for teachers, while providing opportunities for learning with their Cosmo-Academy, as well as community-building by offering forums (especially the BAUT forum), areas for discussion and online activities and events such as Hangouts and observing.  Cosmoquest is run by actual astronomers sharing their love of astronomy, and I personally know what great people they are! Give them some love! https://cosmoquest.org/


Brian Koberlein (astrophysicist and physics professor at Rochester Institute of Technology, author, podcaster, publisher)

There are lots of good science charities out there. If I were to choose a lesser known project, I’d suggest Universe Simplified http://www.universesimplified.com/ They promote science to kids in Mumbai, including camps, sidewalk astronomy, and hands-on activities. Their focus is helping under-privileged children in Mumbai, and their workshops are provided at no cost. Henna Kahn is in charge of the project, and she does an amazing job.


Andrew Rader (SpaceX engineer, MIT PhD, author)

The Planetary Society is an American-based non-government, nonprofit organization that anyone may join. It is involved in research and engineering projects related to astronomy, planetary science, exploration, public outreach, and political advocacy. It was founded in 1980 by Carl Sagan, Bruce Murray, and Louis Friedman, and has over 40,000 members from more than one hundred countries around the world. http://www.planetary.org


Mateusz Macias (author of this blog)

I would like to join our experts in this topic and give my support to not-for-profit organization of our panelist Brian Koberlein – “Prove Your World”. I interviewed Brian last year and he gave me great outline of what the project is: “Prove Your World is a project to encourage scientific thinking in children. We’re focusing on children ages 8 – 13, since that is an age where views about science start solidifying. We use puppet characters because they can explore the world the way children do, while still allowing for fast-paced interactions.  Initial studies we’ve done seem to indicate they are quite effective for this age range.” For further information go to http://proveyourworld.org.

Humanity Representative

Alien civilization “parked” their spaceship in our planet’s vicinity. We have one shot to make a good impression, we send our representative. I asked our panelists who is their ideal candidate.
Nicole Gugliucci (“Noisy astronomer”, blogger, educator, post-doc)

I might be having a long day, but my first response is “No one! Tell them to run for their lives, it’s ridiculous down here!”

Actually in all seriousness I’m sure no one person could speak for humanity adequately. I imagine the current UN Secretary General would be a decent choice, as he’s at least already caught up on what’s going on around the world. Sadly, Ellie Arroway is only a fictional character.


Nancy Atkinson (Senior Editor for Universe Today, Host of the NASA Lunar Science Institute podcast & a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador)

The obvious choice is Neil de Grasse Tyson, with Bill Nye running a close second — maybe we should send them both!  NDGT would be able to answer any questions the aliens have without getting into political or theological rhetoric and he would represent the best qualities of humanity: curiosity, wonder, and intelligence.

Bill Nye would also present those qualities while being a fun (and funny) guy for the aliens to meet! I mean, who doesn’t want to meet these two??


Fraser Cain (publisher at Universetoday.com, co-host of Astronomy Cast)

Whoa, that would be a huge responsibility. One wrong move and you might doom humanity. I think I’d choose Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield because he’s awesome on every level. He’s an eloquent communicator, he can play the guitar in zero gravity to entertain the aliens, and if things go sideways, he can use his skills as a fighter pilot to steal one of their shuttles and alert us of an impending invasion.


Brian Koberlein (astrophysicist and physics professor at Rochester Institute of Technology, author, podcaster, publisher)

I would do it as a contest. Have people apply, go through the discussions and let people vote on who they’d like to represent them. If we broadcast it the aliens would also see what we value, and what we like and dislike about ourselves. I suspect the winner would be someone experienced, but who isn’t a celebrity.


Andrew Rader (SpaceX engineer, MIT PhD, author)

Why only 1? I’d send the US President (to act as a political ambassador), an astronomer (to learn about where they came from), and a medical doctor (to learn about their anatomy).

 

 


Ban Ki-Moon

Neil deGrasse Tyson

Bill Nye

Chris Hadfield

Vacation Trip

Our Solar System is really beautiful in its diversity. One day we’ll be able to travel freely wherever we want. This is what I asked our panelists: If you could go wherever you wanted in our Solar System what destination would you pick and why? Who would you take with you? Warm welcome to Brian Koberlein, our new panelist.

Nancy Atkinson (Senior Editor for Universe Today, Host of the NASA Lunar Science Institute podcast & a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador)

In the future, I’d love to take a “Cassini Historical Cruise Tour,” and travel the route and see the sights that the Cassini spacecraft has taken. It would start with the amazing views of the full Saturn system of rings and moons as you approached, then your touring spacecraft would push up through the gap in Saturn’s rings on its way into orbit around the planet. The moon tour would include close-up views of the spongy-looking Hyperion, death-star Mimas, two-toned Iapetus, and then fly through the plumes of Enceledus. The tour would continue with parachuting down to Titan’s surface through the thick atmosphere – just like the Huygens probe—and then you’d take a tranquil cruise of the northern hydrocarbon lakes region on Titan. I’d be reporting on the sights, of course, so I’d be taking along all the readers of Universe Today – at least virtually. Ahhh! Sounds relaxing!


Brian Koberlein (astrophysicist and physics professor at Rochester Institute of Technology, author, podcaster, publisher)

Although Mars is surely a popular destination, I’d probably choose to go to Saturn, mainly because of the rich diversity of the Saturnian system. It has a complex ring system that we could pass through. We could sail on the lakes of Titan, and hike its hilly terrain. We could go to Enceladus and check out its subsurface ocean, and possibly even find life there.  Herschel crater on Mimas would be a must go, just for the geek cred of having visited the “Death Star” moon.
I’d likely want to take my wife, since Saturn is her favorite planet.


Robert Novella (co-founder and vice-president of New England Skeptical Society, co-host of Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe)

I have two places in the solar system that I’d love to vacation on:

Mars: My go-to locations on Mars would be Olympus Mons (3 times the height of everest at 27 miles) and Valles Marineris (2,500 miles long and 6+ miles deep…makes the Grand Canyon look like a skid mark) I would also love to wave at one of the mars rovers and freak everyone out on earth.

Titan: Saturn’s biggest moon is the most earth-like spot in the solar system and the view of Saturn is quite lovely this time of year. Plus its gravity and atmospheric density make it the best place for human-powered flight (just put on some wings and flap).

I’d bring my dad, brothers and daughter. We all love astronomy and I’d appreciate that trip with them more than anyone else.


Andrew Rader (SpaceX engineer, MIT PhD, author)

Ice skating on Europa. Great views of Jupiter and you can jump really high. Bring ice skates, a space suit, and radiation shielding. Who would I bring with me? At least a 100-person crew on a vast interplanetary spaceship.

 

 


Fraser Cain (publisher at Universetoday.com, co-host of Astronomy Cast)

There are so many places I’d like to go. I’d love to see the enormous ridge on Saturn’s moon Iapetus, I’d love to stand on the edge of Valles Marinaris on Mars. I’d love to float in the cloudtops of Venus, and hike across the frozen landscape of Europa. It would be especially cool to strap on a pair on wings and fly on Titan.

 

 


Nicole Gugliucci (“Noisy astronomer”, blogger, educator, post-doc)

Oh man…. what an imaginative question. Assuming all this was possible, I’d head to Valles Marinaris on Mars for some hiking. It’s a LOT bigger than the Grand Canyon which is one of my favorite spots on Earth. A hiking trip with my partner, Tim, and my dog, Macey, sounds like a fine vacation!