Across the Universe: Words, Words, Worlds
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Originally published in The Tablet in March, 2004 – the first of many columns I wound up writing about the definition of a planet, leading up to the IAU decision about Pluto in 2006. And this is a repeat of a blog entry first published at the Catholic Astronomer three years ago… as I have run out of Tablet columns to publish! On the other side of Neptune live the Trans-Neptunian Objects, or TNOs. They are worlds so faint that to measure their colors, we use a mirror nearly two meters across to gather their light, which we focus into a spot of only a few hundreds of a millimeter, collecting it with an ultra-sensitive electronic chip, over a five-minute time exposure. They move – more than five minutes and the spot turns into a streak. But take enough exposures over a few hours and you can plot their motions against the background stars and galaxies. The TNOs are thought to be the … Continue reading

Pluto’s Sputnik Planum Region is Likely a Large Impact Basin
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The icy region on Pluto, unofficially known as Sputnik Planum, is likely a large impact basin, say members of NASA’s New Horizons mission team in this abstract, presented at the 227th meeting of American Astronomical Society (AAS). One of the most startling features seen on Pluto is a vast, nearly crater-free plain of oddly patterned nitrogen and methane ices. An eroded plateau to the northeast, and high peaks to the southwest with a different morphology suggest a massive irregularly shaped impact basin, similar to that of the Caloris Basin on Mercury. After the impact on Pluto, the basin filled up with ices, eliminating any visual traces of former impact craters in the region. The lack of cratering, and evidence of glaciation show that Sputnik Planum is relatively young, and geologically active. Read more: We Finally Think We Know What Caused Pluto’s Weird, Bumpy Plains Pluto’s weird, icy plains likely caused by Manhattan-sized asteroid Abstract: A Large Impact Origin for Sputnik … Continue reading

Mountains and Glaciers on Pluto
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NASA’s New Horizons Mission has released a high-resolution enhanced-color mosaic of Pluto, showing a beautiful swath of the dwarf planet’s surface. The image above shows a potions of the “badlands” region northwest of the Sputnik Planum, across the al-Idrisi mountain range, over the shores of Pluto’s now iconic “heart” feature, to the edge of vast icy plains of nitrogen, carbon monoxide, and methane ices. The images used to create this mosaic have resolutions of about 77-85 meters (250-280 feet) per pixel, revealing features smaller than half a city block. Note: The names of geologic features on Pluto are currently all provisional, until approved by the IAU. Educational Resources NASA Eyes on the Solar System: Pluto Lesson Plans and Educational Activities New Horizons Pinterest Page New Horizons Image Gallery New Horizons Mission Overview View Pluto in Google Earth with this KML file! (This is really cool! Requires: Google Earth) Read More: Johns Hopkins University Press Release: New Horizons Returns the First … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Being Asked the Right Questions
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(This column first ran in The Tablet in November, 2007) I have a new [in 2007] book just published, and so I have been on “book tour” for the past month. The audiences have ranged from a friendly group at the Thomas More Center of Yale University, to a lively group who’d come for an argument at the New York City Public Library of Science, Industry, and Business. The highlight so far has been a three-hour interview on a popular American radio program, “Coast to Coast.” It broadcasts live from 2 am to 5 am (east coast time), which meant I had to stay up with a telephone at my ear during the wee hours of the morning. That was in fact no problem, since I did the interview while observing trans-Neptunian objects with the Vatican’s telescope in Arizona. While my colleagues kept track of our targets, I spoke to America’s insomniacs. The show is infamous for treating in utter … Continue reading

Encounter Fashions: The Hats of New Horizons
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When I set out to experience a Pluto flyby, I did not anticipate that I would be getting involved with hats. In the middle of July, I was hanging around the Kossiakoff Conference and Education Center at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory, home of the New Horizons project. I was there to assist a team of educators working on public outreach about the mission. Over a thousand visitors were present. In a corner of the center was a table. Artwork of Pluto, its moon Charon, and NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft decorated a large backdrop behind the table. On the table was a professionally-made one-eighth-scale model of the spacecraft. It was a very nice model. But it wasn’t what drew the attention of visitors. What visitors were looking at was the hats. Large hats. In the shape of the New Horizons spacecraft. … Continue reading

Encounter Day, Evening: “We’re Outbound from Pluto”
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We spent Tuesday, the 14th of July, in suspense, not knowing whether the Pluto flyby had been a success. Just as planned, the spacecraft had not transmitted any signal since Monday.  I was among the visitors at the home base of the New Horizons spacecraft, the Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland. Late in the afternoon, the spacecraft antenna pointed briefly back at Earth. The plan was to send a squirt of status data for a few minutes. Moving at the speed of light, this signal would not reach Earth until four and a half hours later, at 8:52 PM Laurel time. Around 8:00, the conference center was filling up with people. The crowd watched a NASA TV feed. Had the spacecraft functioned correctly? The feed switched to the New Horizons operations center in another building. “Carrier lock” had been achieved. This brought relieved applause! Then controllers confirmed seeing good telemetry from several systems, each reporting … Continue reading

Encounter Day, Morning: The Heart of Pluto
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As I left the Applied Physics Laboratory on the evening of Monday, 13 July—a day I wrote about in “Land of the Plutophiles”—I knew the New Horizons spacecraft would fall silent that night. Across the gulf between here and Pluto, the slow transmission of images and other data takes a lot of time. Pointing instruments this way and that, as the spacecraft covered Pluto, Charon, the smaller moons, and the space between, left no time to pause and point the high-gain dish antenna at Earth—especially during the crucial hours near closest approach. Instead the plan was to record all data in New Horizons’ onboard memory. There would be plenty of time, if all went well, to transmit the data in the months following the flyby. During Monday, nevertheless, a few key “insurance” observations had been transmitted. The chance of collision with a destructive grain of dust, or disruption by a cosmic ray, was remote, but not zero. In case of … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Words that Change Reality
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My columns for The Tablet often act as a diary of sorts, recording important events in science or in my own life. Such is this column, which first ran in September, 2006. Ten years ago last month [2006], Dave McKay and his colleagues at Nasa’s Johnson Space Center in Houston announced that a meteorite, believed to have come from Mars, showed evidence of microbial life. Their interpretations are still widely disputed by the meteoritics community. But, oddly, their announcement resulted in one major change of attitudes. Before, there were still skeptics who were not sure that those rocks came from Mars; now, as the skeptics argue about the putative biogenic grains found in it, no one doubts the Martian origin anymore! Some of us can only be skeptical of one thing at a time, I guess. Still, what you call the meteorite doesn’t really change its nature. Either it is, or it is not, from Mars. Either it is, or … Continue reading

Pluto, Comet 67P/C-G, and Ceres – Oh My!
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New images from Pluto! New images of Comet 67P/C-G! New images of Ceres! This has been a week of “Too Much Input!” Yesterday, new images of Pluto from the New Horizons spacecraft had Twitter awash with admiration; some were saying that the following image is the most compelling ever released from the space program. I’m not quite there, but close – it is jaw-dropping! The ESA’s Rosetta mission posted some post-perigee images of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, still active and jetting: NASA’s Dawn mission, currently in its high level mapping orbit, has been posting copious amounts of new images of the surface of dwarf planet Ceres: For years now, at every meeting of the Warren Astronomical Society, fellow Solar System Ambassador Ken Bertin has presented an “In the News” segment; he mentioned to me that two decades ago, there was so little astronomy and space science news, he had trouble putting together much of a report. Today, he has to sift through … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Planetary Counsels
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This column was first published in The Tablet in September 2005. Of course, as we all know, the discussions talked about here finally came to their climax in August 2006 with the definition of a “Dwarf Planet” as I described here. During the Council of Nicaea, so the story goes, tempers ran so high over the question of defining Jesus’ human and divine natures that fist fights broke out in the streets. Our councils this past month were much smaller, but no less heated. In Brazil, Norway, and Britain, various subsets of an International Astronomical Union (IAU) Working Group met in August and September [2005] to finally try to define a planet. Although our working group has been around for more than a year (I wrote about it here in April, 2004) the situation reached a crisis this summer with the announcement of the particulars for a body temporarily designated 2003 UB313. It’s ten billion miles from the Sun, in … Continue reading

Hazy Pluto
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Flowing ice and a surprising extended haze are among the newest discoveries from NASA’s New Horizons mission, which reveal distant Pluto to be an icy world of wonders. “We knew that a mission to Pluto would bring some surprises, and now — 10 days after closest approach — we can say that our expectation has been more than surpassed,” said John Grunsfeld, NASA’s associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate. “With flowing ices, exotic surface chemistry, mountain ranges, and vast haze, Pluto is showing a diversity of planetary geology that is truly thrilling.” Just seven hours after closest approach, New Horizons aimed its Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) back at Pluto, capturing sunlight streaming through the atmosphere and revealing hazes as high as 80 miles (130 kilometers) above Pluto’s surface. A preliminary analysis of the image shows two distinct layers of haze — one about 50 miles (80 kilometers) above the surface and the other at an altitude of about … Continue reading

New Horizons Encounter With Pluto
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As the New Horizons probe passes by dwarf planet Pluto and its satellites on July 14th, it will use a host of instruments to collect data. The following is the sequence of events for the flyby: On approach, LORRI takes critical optical navigation images to confirm the spacecraft is on the right course for the flyby.  The team can use these data to adjust timing of the observation sequence as late as July 12. Final radio transmission prior to closest approach is received at ~11:15pm EDT on July 13. During the flyby on July 14, LORRI will take high-resolution B/W images, Ralph / MVIC will make color maps, and Ralph / LEISA will image the system in the infrared, all of which will help determine the geology and composition of the surface. Closest approach to Pluto is at 7:49:57 a.m. EDT on July 14. Approximately one hour after closest approach, at 8:51am EDT on July 14, the spacecraft will turn around and, with Pluto between it and the … Continue reading