Pluto Mission Success!

Amy and I joined the rest of the Earth and held our breath tonight mission-controlwaiting for the confirmation call from New Horizons.

The NASA Twitter feed counted down the approach of the signal as it crossed the halfway point, then Jupiter’s orbit, then Mars’ orbit. Then the live feed on NASA TV confirmed the nominal condition of one system after another and the control room exploded with cheers.

At its closest approach, the spacecraft buzzed Pluto at approximately 6,200 miles above its surface, then buzzed Charon from about 17,931 miles. The pictures and data will be exciting, although we’ll have to wait 16 months to see them all.

The first image from Pluto will arrive some time overnight and will be released in the morning. Tomorrow we’ll wake up to the opportunity of a lifetime – to view close-up images of the last unexplored world in our solar system. How cool is that??

Lynn

Star Party in Amberg

A great time was had by all at Gerry’s star party scheduled spider-pixThursday through tonight in Amberg, WI. A small group turned out on Thursday, but Amy and I were lucky enough to catch the best skies on Friday night. Tonight (Saturday) was clouded out.

Yes, there were misquitoes and flies, but Deep Woods Off took care of them. This spider, however, looked big enough to grab the Deep Woods Off can and chase us around the observing field. At least we didn’t have to battle any dew.

The skies were unsteady around 10:30, and thin clouds occasionally interfered briefly with what we were trying to observe. But as the evening progressed, seeing steadied and I found M4 and M5, and easily split Alcor and Mizar with Gerry’s 10×80 binoculars. We saw Pluto in Gerry’s 10″ Schmidt, watched a really bright Iridium Flare, and the Milky Way brightened as the sky got darker.

Amy and I also entertaiobserving-fieldned ourselves by looking for Asterisms, and found the Engagement Ring, the Owl Cluster, the Gas Pump, and the Guardians of the Pole. We’ll write more about Asterisms in a later blog.

Oh yes. I can’t forget to mention the Twizzlers and the Banana Cream Pie from the Amberg Pub. Thanks Gerry and Mary!!

Lynn

I Hate Pluto – and You Should, Too!

Pickett
Megan Pickett, Associate Professor of Physics, prepares for a presentation at the July NPMAS meeting.

Last Wednesday, our local astronomy club was treated to a presentation by Megan Pickett, an Associate Professor of Physics from Lawrence University in Appleton. In anticipation of NASA’s New Horizon spacecraft flyby of Pluto in less than two weeks, Pickett’s presentation was entitled “I Hate Pluto (and Why You Should, Too).”

Much of Pickett’s talk centered on the International Astronomical Union‘s (IAU) demotion of Pluto from a full-fledged planet to a dwarf planet in August of 2006. The IAU pulled Pluto’s status because of its size, its makeup, and its erratic orbit.

Because of its icy composition, Pickett said Pluto’s surface looks more like a plate of quiche than a rocky planet. She said Pluto is very small (less than 1,500 miles in diameter), and that it hasn’t cleared its orbit of debris, which is an accepted prerequisite for planet status. Additionally, Pluto’s orbit is unlike the orbit of any other planet in our Solar System.

Charon, once considered Pluto’s largest moon, is nearly the size of Pluto. It’s not even considered a moon of Pluto anymore, but rather, is classified as a binary object because the center of balance between Pluto and Charon is outside of Pluto.

Pluto
July 1 photo of Pluto and Cheron taken by the New Horizons spacecraft from a distance of ten million miles. Photo by NASA/JHUAPL/SWR.

Pluto is now classified as a Kuiper Belt object, one of hundreds of thousands of objects in the outer solar system. The Kuiper belt is home to the three known dwarf planets (Pluto, Makemake and Haumea) as well as most short-period comets.

On July 14, New Horizons will photograph Pluto’s surface from just 7,800 miles away. It will also survey Pluto’s moons and other Kuiper Belt objects.

Pickett has been a featured speaker for our club in the past, and always answers questions well past the museum’s closing time. She brought teammates from her other passion, the Paper Valley Roller Girls, a roller derby league she’s been president of since 2008.

Lynn

Ceres Curiosity is Killing Me!

I don’t know about you, but this is making me absolutely nuts!

Yesterday, NASA’s released this image on Ceres from an altitude of 2,700 miles.
Yesterday, NASA’s released this image on Ceres from an altitude of 2,700 miles.

 

My rational adult brain understands that I only need to be patient a little while longer. In August, the Dawn spacecraft will skim above the surface of Ceres at a mere 230 miles. Soon after that, we will hopefully receive a convincing explanation of what those bright, shiny spots are on Ceres. But until then, I’m losing sleep.

Fortunately, the photos from Ceres have improved as the Dawn spacecraft has gotten closer. But rather than solve the riddle, each photographic improvement has bought more questions.

HST 2004
HST 2004
Dawn, Feb. 2015. Distance 29,000 miles
Dawn, Feb. 2015. Distance 29,000 miles
Dawn, June 6, 2015. Distance 2,700 miles
Dawn, June 6, 2015. Distance 2,700 miles

Just what the heck are those mysterious, shiny patches? Our greatest minds are postulating subsurface ice reflecting sunlight, or ice volcanoes, or even salt. Me? Well I’m not convinced that the sun can light up ice that brightly from 257 million miles away. I could be wrong.

And ice volcanoes? Shiny salt? Sigh.

So just what the heck are they anyway??

Lynn