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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Discover the impact of meteors with Dr. Kring on Asteroid Day

On Feb. 15, 2013, with no warning, an asteroid 20 meters in diameter and weighing more than the Eiffel Tower plunged into the Earth’s atmosphere over the Russian city of Chelyabinsk at speeds in excess of 19 kilometers per second. At such a high speed, the 14,000-ton object exploded at altitude, creating a flash 30 times brighter than the sun and panicking Siberian residents.

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The Chelyabinsk meteor injured 1,500 people and damaged 7,200 buildings in 2013.

The air burst damaged 7,200 buildings and injured 1,500 people, mostly due to cuts from broken glass, but many reported ultraviolet burns similar to sun damage and blindness from the flash. It was not the impact that caused the most damage, but the explosion as it suddenly fell apart in the atmosphere, about 25 times more energy than the atomic bomb detonated over Hiroshima.

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The impact crater caused by the Chelyabinsk meteor.

The largest meteor impact since the Tunguska event on June 30, 1908 that flattened 80 million trees, Chelyabinsk served as a grim reminder that asteroids still pose a credible threat to the planet the same way they did for the dinosaurs. A massive asteroid collided with the Earth 65 million years ago, bringing about the demise of megafauna like Tyrannosaurus rex and Triceratops, along with more than half of the plants and animals living in the late Cretaceous. Scientists agree the asteroid responsible for this mass extinction hit the Yucatan, causing the Chicxulub crater. And the threat remains, this time for us.

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Dr. David Kring, the man who discovered and named the Chicxulub crater.

Dr. David Kring of the Lunar and Planetary Institute, the scientists who discovered and named the Chicxulub for a Mayan village near the center of the crater, will pay a visit to the Houston Museum of Natural Science on Asteroid Day, June 30, at 6:30 p.m. His lecture will examine methods to mitigate the threat of meteor impacts to humanity, and guests will have a chance to engage in a Q&A session during the lecture. The Burke Baker Planetarium will offer special screenings of Impact at 6 and 8 p.m., complimentary with a ticket to Kring’s lecture.

Join us to learn more about asteroid impacts and other phenomena on Asteroid Day. Survival favors the informed. Tickets $18, Members $12.

Seeing Stars with James Wooten: Mars aligns with Earth and sun, solstice on its way

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Venus is in the west at dusk. At dusk, look high over the point of sunset for the brightest thing there; it outshines everything but the Sun and the Moon. 

Jupiter is also in the west as soon as night falls. Jupiter outshines all stars we ever see at night, so it will be obvious when you look up at dusk. During June, watch Venus gradually close the gap on Jupiter, until they are just over one-third of one degree apart on the evening of June 30.

Saturn is now in the southeastern sky at dusk. Although it is not as brilliant as Venus or Jupiter, it outshines the stars around it, so it’s also easy to see. 

Mars is lost in the glare of the Sun. Conjunction (Mars in line with Earth and Sun, behind the Sun) is June 14.

The Big Dipper is above the North Star, with its handle pointing up. From that handle, you can ‘arc to Arcturus’ and then ‘speed on to Spica’; those stars are in the south at dusk. Leo, the Lion, is high in the west at dusk. Venus and Jupiter come together right in front of Leo’s face, marked by stars in the shape of a sickle, or a backwards question mark.

Antares, brightest star of Scorpius, the Scorpion, is in the southeast, with the ‘teapot’ of Sagittarius rising behind it. Saturn is right above the scorpion’s head. The Summer Triangle has fully risen in the northeast. The stars of summer are here.

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Moon Phases in June 2015:

Full: June 2, 11:19 a.m.

Last Quarter: June 9, 10:42 a.m.

New: June 16, 9:05 a.m.

First Quarter: June 24, 6:03 a.m.

At 11:38 a.m. on Sunday, June 21, the sun is directly overhead at the Tropic of Cancer, the farthest point north where it can be overhead. This puts the Sun as high as possible in our skies, and marks the summer solstice. Of all the days of the year, we’ll have the most daylight and the least night on June 21. In the southern hemisphere, the sun is as low as possible in the sky as they experience the least daylight and the longest night of the year. It’s the winter solstice down there.

Due to the equation of time, the latest sunset occurs for us on June 30, not June 21. Thus, if we sleep through sunrise and watch sunset, as most of us do, days seem to lengthen all the way to the end of the month.

For more information about shows at the Burke Baker Planetarium, visit the planetarium schedule.

On most clear Saturday nights at the George Observatory, you can hear me do live star tours on the observation deck with a green laser pointer.  If you’re there, listen for my announcement. I generally do one such tour on short June evenings.

Clear Skies!

Seeing Stars with James Wooten: Restored Gueymard offers views of brilliant Jupiter this May

Star Map May 2015Mercury is low in the west-northwest, below and slightly to the right. It remains visible for the first half of May before returning towards the Sun.

Venus is in the west at dusk. Look high over the point of sunset for the brightest thing there. 

Jupiter is now high in the west as soon as night falls. Jupiter outshines all stars we ever see at night, so it will be obvious when you look up at dusk.   

Saturn enters the evening sky this month. It rises May 1 by 9:40 p.m. By May 22, it is up literally all night; it rises at sundown and sets at sunrise. This is because Earth is aligned between the Sun and Saturn on that date. We therefore say that Saturn is at opposition. 

Mars is lost in the glare of the Sun.

A swath of brilliant winter stars sets in the west at dusk. Orion, the Hunter, is still visible in the west as May begins. His two dogs, represented by Sirius and Procyon, are to his left.  Gemini, the Twins, are above Orion. The Big Dipper is above the North Star, with its handle pointing to the right. From that handle, you can ‘arc to Arcturus’ and then ‘speed on to Spica’; those stars are high in the east and in the south, respectively, at dusk. Leo, the Lion, passes almost overhead at dusk.

As Orion and Taurus set, look for Antares, brightest star of Scorpius, the Scorpion, to rise in the southeast. Saturn will be right on the Scorpion’s head, above Antares. At the same time, Vega, brightest star of the Summer Triangle, appears low in the northeast. These stars remind us that summer is on the way.Phases10-9x-3w

Moon Phases in May 2015

Full: May 3, 10:42 pm

Last Quarter: May 11, 5:36 am

New: May 18, 11:13 pm

First Quarter: May 25, 12:19 pm

Click here for the Burke Baker Planetarium schedule.

In case you missed the news, the main telescope at George Observatory is once again fully operational. Thanks in large part to public support, we were able to get our mirror cleaned and then reinstalled. The newly refurbished mirror was opened to the public last weekend. Come join us on clear Saturday nights at the George!

On most clear Saturday nights at the George Observatory, you can hear me do live star tours on the observation deck with a green laser pointer.  If you’re there, listen for my announcement. I generally do one such tour on short May evenings.

Clear skies!