New images from Pluto break our hearts, excite our imaginations

Pluto has a heart. A big, icy heart surrounded by a sea of red. It was more of a fluke of photographic composition, a perfect angle for the shot that astronomers and engineers waited for more than nine years to receive, but nonetheless the image has served to anthropomorphize the dwarf planet enough to make us fall in love with it all over again.

Pluto

Identified by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930 as the ninth planet from the sun, Pluto fell from grace in 2006 when the International Astronomical Union contentiously demoted it to a dwarf planet, but it never fell from our imaginations. Pluto occupies the same region of space as peers of similar or greater size, including the more massive dwarf planet Eris, and now that we see it has a heart, we imagine it breaking.

Pluto is a lonely wanderer, its elliptical flying well above and below the main plane of the solar system and within the orbit of Neptune. Tuesday morning, the historic images from NASA’s New Horizons space probe revealed its pockmarked face, wrinkled with valleys and mountains, and blanketed in sheets of ice, supporting the character we have imagined over the past 85 years. No less an idiosyncratic body than Jupiter, Saturn, or our own life-supporting Earth, Pluto’s face, now lifted out of obfuscation, reminds us of the magic of other worlds and reignites the spark of possibility.

Clyde_W._Tombaugh

Clyde W. Tombaugh. Wikipedia Commons.

Not only have we become closer to this famous (and infamous) planetoid during the nine-year journey of the New Horizons, we have also succeeded in slinging a piece of engineering three billion miles at speeds greater than 30,000 miles per hour, maintained control through the veil of a four-hour lag time, and captured high-resolution photos. The images of Pluto represent the scientific precision of which we are now capable in 2015. Dr. Carolyn Sumners, Vice President of Astronomy and Physics at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, explains this feat in terms of scale using objects familiar to Houstonians.

“If the sun were the Astrodome, the Earth is a ball the diameter of a tall person in Pasadena, and Pluto is a ball about a foot in diameter out close to Amarillo. We aimed, and we hit it,” she said, adding that space is a very empty place.

planetarium

HMNS hosted a flyby watch party in the Burke Baker Planetarium Tuesday, with streaming images from NASA.

To further complicate the logistics, engineers had to compensate for the movement of Pluto, looking into the distant future for the point of interception. They also factored in a slingshot around Jupiter, using its intense gravity to accelerate the probe to speeds much faster than it was launched.

“There’s a lot of very complicated, solid geometry and physics that went into the mission. That, to me, is the most impressive,” Sumners said.

Due to the four-hour delay, engineers had to send a command and cross their fingers for eight hours every time a button was pushed. Four hours out, four hours back. They could only trust in their math and hope that the spectrograph and camera were aimed at Pluto at the right time.

“We got our science right,” Sumners said. “That we can do something this technologically advanced that far away is amazing.”

Starry Night Express to Pluto banner

HMNS hosted a Pluto flyby watch party in the Burke Baker Planetarium, with guests including Fox News and KHOU. Beloved astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson made a cameo appearance over the Internet from his seat at the American Museum of Natural History. Visitors watched via live video stream as New Horizons came within 7,767 miles of Pluto at 6:49 a.m. CT. Houston Public Media highlights the significance of the event to our city and to the United States.

As the data from New Horizons continues to stream in over the next few months and areas of Pluto become more visible, scientists will begin the process of identifying and naming features of the planet’s surface. A day after the flyby, with the first close-up images sent by New Horizons, NASA has discovered ice mountains 11,000 feet high, comparable in height to the Rockies, and now we know it snows. Imagine that.

mountains on pluto

Ice mountains on Pluto.

At HMNS, the Planetarium has altered its Starry Night Express programming with a new major focus on incoming images and data from New Horizons. Guests can now get updates on the latest information about our famous dwarf planet during Starry Night Express: To Pluto! Visitors to the museum’s George Observatory in Brazos Bend State Park on Saturday nights can see several planets with their own eyes and maybe even Pluto through the Gueymard Research Telescope if the night is perfect.

HMNS will host a lecture by Dr. Paul Schenk of the Lunar and Planetary Institute on the exploration of Ceres and Pluto Tuesday, August 11 at 6:30 p.m. Schenk, who is currently assisting NASA with Pluto research and was a participant in the Dawn mission to Vesta in 2011, will review the unprecedented explorations of the inner and outer solar system and share the top questions scientists hope to answer with the data they gather. Tickets $18, members $12.

Wonder Women of STEM: Dr. Mae Jemison, the first African-American female astronaut.

Editor’s Note: This post is the fourth in a series featuring influential women from STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) fields in the lead up to HMNS’ annual GEMS (Girls Exploring Math and Science) event, February 21, 2015. Click here to get involved!

 

We’ve seen some amazing women in STEM, but none are quite so out of this world as Dr. Mae Jemison, the first African-American female astronaut. In 1992, she orbited the earth for over a week on the space shuttle Endeavor and logged over 190 hours in space!

Dr. Jemison had numerous accomplishments in addition to her space travel. She began her college career at age 16 by attending Stanford University on scholarship. Within 4 years, she graduated with a BS in Chemical Engineering and a BA in African and African-American Studies from Stanford University. She continued her studies at Cornell University where she received her doctorate degree in medicine. A few years later, she proceeded to volunteer for over two years with the Peace Corps in Western Africa where she taught health education and contributed to research concerning the Hepatitis B vaccination among others.

After all of her volunteer work, Jemison applied to be part of the NASA Space Program and was one of 15 people selected out of 2000 to join the Space Program in 1987. She joined her first orbiting mission in 1992 with Endeavor. While aboard Endeavor, she worked with other astronauts on bone cell research along with other experiments and investigations. Although her time in space was short, she was able to claim the title of first female African-American in space. In May of 1993, Dr. Jemison left NASA to teach at Dartmouth College and continue to educate future generations.

In addition to her space travels, Dr. Jemison has a list of accomplishments that would knock your socks off. She can speak four languages, wrote her own book called “Find Where the Wind Goes,” was on the cover of JET Magazine, hosted the World of Wonders TV show, and was voted one of the 50 Most Beautiful People according to People Magazine. If that’s not enough, she’s also got a sense of humor. She talks about her experiences in Brazil for the 20th anniversary of the Apollo missions and she comments, “Wow!! Y’all need to be glad I didn’t go to Brazil before NASA or I’d still be there doing development work and the Samba on the beach.” Like I said, impressive!

Space was not the first major accomplishment for Dr. Mae Jemison, and it certainly won’t be her last. She continues to expand interest in science education through her foundation, The Dorothy Jemison Foundation for Excellence. She created The Earth We Share, international science camp for students as well as a program to encourage hands-on, science education through Teachers.

If you are inspired by women such as Dr. Mae Jemison, then you’ll enjoy meeting some of the local ladies of STEM at GEMS this weekend. Come to HMNS between 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. to learn more about science, technology, engineering and math! We’ll even have representatives from NASA!

Are we there yet? Dr. John Kappelman discusses Africa and the human evolutionary journey at HMNS

In the history of mankind, there have been three major migrations: two of these happened a long time ago, and one (of the “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” type) happened in our own lifetime. 

evolution astronautAbout 1.8 million years ago, hominids we call Homo erectus ventured outside Africa, wandering into Europe and Asia. Our own species evolved in East Africa around 200,000 years ago. About 50,000 years ago, Homo sapiens followed in Homo erectus’ footsteps, with significant numbers leaving Africa. Eventually they crossed Asia and made it all the way into the Americas.

Homo erectus model displayed at the Westfälisches Landesmuseum, Herne, Germany in 2007 (Image Wikimedia)

Homo erectus model displayed at the Westfälisches Landesmuseum, Herne, Germany in 2007 (Image from Wikimedia).

 On July 20, 1969, Homo sapiens marked another milestone, with the first step on the Moon. Today, we have a permanent presence in space, albeit it on a very limited scale. We have come a long way indeed.

Long before Homo erectus left Africa, other bipedal creatures roamed Africa. Among these was Australopithecus afarensis, a hominid first discovered in Ethiopia. In 1974, Donald Johanson and his team uncovered a well preserved specimen who was nicknamed Lucy, and shortly afterwards also Dinkenesh. 

AL 288-1, Australopithecus afarensis. Also known as “Lucy” or “Dinkenesh” (Image by Viktor Deak).

AL 288-1, Australopithecus afarensis. Also known as “Lucy” or “Dinkenesh”
(Image by Viktor Deak).

Lucy and her species have been the subject of many scientific studies. However, when she traveled to the United States for the second time in 2007 (the first time was in 1975, to the Cleveland Museum of Natural History), she underwent a scientific procedure never before applied to her: for 10 days, she resided on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin, where she underwent a high resolution CT scan.

The scanned data was handed over to the government of Ethiopia and Mamitu Yilma, director of the National Museum in Addis Ababa. The successful completion of Lucy’s scan meant that the specimen is now safely archived in digital format — one of the reasons behind the scanning.

A small but dedicated team participated in the scanning project in Austin: 

Members of the scanning team included (from left) Ron Harvey, conservator, Lincolnville, Maine; Alemu Admassu, curator, National Museum, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia;  John Kappelman, UT Austin; and Richard Ketcham, UT Austin.  The team used the ultra high-resolution Xradia MicroXCT scanner (background), for some of the scans.

Members of the scanning team included (from left) Ron Harvey, conservator, Lincolnville, Maine; Alemu Admassu, curator, National Museum, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; John Kappelman, UT Austin; and Richard Ketcham, UT Austin. The team used the ultra high resolution Xradia MicroXCT scanner (background), for some of the scans.

Dr. John Kappelman has had a long-standing relation with the Houston Museum of Natural Science. He was one of many scientific advisors to the curator of anthropology when the exhibit featuring Lucy was prepared. His own research into human evolution is the topic of an upcoming presentation at the museum.

To find out if we are “there yet,” come listen to Dr. Kappelman on Tuesday, May 13 at 6:30 p.m.

HMNS Distinguished Lecture
The First Big Trip – Are We There Yet? Africa and the Human Journey
John Kappelman, Ph.D.
Tuesday, May 13, 2014, 6:30 p.m.
Click here to purchase advance tickets.

This lecture is cosponsored by Archaeology Institute of America – Houston Society as part of its 2013-2014 Innovations series.

The galaxy just got bigger: Calling all future space explorers to Family Space Day!

ATTENTION FUTURE SPACE EXPLORERS: NASA has just discovered 715 new planets for you to study and learn.

But let’s back up a second.

Launched in 2009, the Kepler space observatory has been scanning the heavens for earth-like exoplanets — planets existing outside our solar system. The observatory has been able to detect strong possibilities of planets, but they needed confirmation. Mountains of data have been sent to scientists on the ground to confirm the existence of these exoplanets.

While this process has been grueling and slow going, it resulted in several hundred confirmations. However, yesterday NASA announced the discovery of 715 new planets orbiting 305 stars — boosting the number of verified exoplanets by 70%.

Kepler has collected this data by detecting the transit of planets across their stars. When planets transit (i.e., cross in front of) a star, the star’s brightness appears to dim by a small amount. The amount of dimming depends on the size of the star and object revolving around it. This process can give false-positives, however, which has necessitated that the data be confirmed by scientists on the ground.

So what’s changed?

The way scientists were sifting through the data has changed. You see, it’s much easier to confirm the existence of planets when they are part of a multi-planet system. Readings that indicate multi-planet systems exist are difficult to explain as anything other than a multi-planet system — as opposed to single planet systems that could be explained by other phenomena. Therefore, by focusing on the data from what appeared to be multi-planet systems, scientists have been able to sift through and confirm the data at a much more rapid pace.

So what’s out there?

Ninety-four percent of the planets discovered are smaller than Neptune (that is, they’re four times larger than Earth or smaller). The number of planets with 2R (double the Earth’s radius) or less has increased 1,000 percent. Our total count of exoplanets now stands at 1,700 — which NASA planetary scientist Jack Lissaur has described as a “veritable bonanza of new worlds.”

So if you’ve got a future space explorer in your family, there’s never been a better time to get excited about space adventures — just in time for our Family Space Day at the George Observatory this Saturday.

Experience what it’s really like to be an astronaut-in-training with a simulated mission. Volunteers from NASA will guide you and your family on your mission — ensuring safe travels — as you transform into astronauts, scientists and engineers flying through space.

A perfect activity for the whole family, the flight simulation is open to adults and children 7 years and older (children ages 7 to 9 must be accompanied by a chaperone), and a minimum of 10 participants per mission is required.

Don’t miss this chance to participate in real astronaut training at the George Observatory! Click here or call (281) 242-3055 for details.