These Groups Can’t Wait for the New Horizons Pluto Encounter
On Tuesday a spacecraft is expected to get Pluto ready for its close-up, offering astronomy fans their first detailed look at the dwarf planet. Associations and groups in the world of astronomy have had a good long time to prepare for this moment. Here's what they've been doing to keep busy.
If you like planets, Tuesday is basically your Super Bowl.
Tomorrow, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft will get closer than anyone from the planet Earth has ever been to Pluto’s surface. It’s a longtime dream for many astronomers and one that’s been incredibly difficult to reach because of the sheer distance separating the craft from the planet Earth. (Considering Pluto’s 3 billion miles away, it’s definitely not a day trip—unless you go at warp speed.)
It took a little while and a lot of money to make this trip happen, admittedly, but the fruits of the labor will show up when the high-resolution photos appear on this page.
Astronomy groups are ready for this moment. Read on to learn how they’ve been preparing.
National Space Society (NSS): The group released a video last month highlighting the many planets that NASA spacecraft have already passed by over the years. Pluto, a dwarf planet, would be the last of the nine original planets on that list. “NSS is delighted to support the New Horizons mission by helping to share this exciting milestone in space exploration with the general public in America and around the world,” NSS Senior Operating Officer Bruce Pittman said in a statement. The video, which was funded by partners in the New Horizons mission, has already received more than 1.3 million views in less than a month of release.
The Planetary Society: The prominent space-exploration advocacy organization, which currently boasts Bill Nye (aka the Science Guy) as its CEO and Cosmos host Neil deGrasse Tyson as a board member, had long pushed to get a spacecraft within shouting distance of Pluto, but it took years to make it that far. In a blog post, the association highlighted how it gave continual support for Pluto missions, even when they seemed impossible to pull off. “The Planetary Society gave continued, strong support for a whole variety of different Pluto missions that never made it off the drawing board,” Alan Stern, a planetary scientist at the University of Colorado-Boulder said of the society’s efforts. “The Planetary Society was always there—no question.” Above are the missions that tried to go to Pluto, as well as the one that’s about to actually make it there.
International Astronomical Union: Oh, yeah, these guys. Back in 2006, IAU drew the ire of space-exploration advocates and Disney fans alike when it decided that Pluto was no longer a planet because of its size. That decision still stings for many astronomy enthusiasts; nonetheless, IAU will play a prominent role in the New Horizons flyby, as it’s responsible for approving the names of features that are discovered on Pluto and its satellites. Along with NASA, it’s getting help from the SETI Institute in running a campaign that allows the public to suggest names based on selected themes or to vote on names that are being considered. Speaking of …
The SETI Institute: Last week the institute sent its name suggestions for the planet’s many features to IAU, which were voted on by astronomy fans, and the final results offer a wide array of naming conventions for the many rock formations and points of interest on both the planet itself and its nearby moons. On its list of recommendations to IAU are mountains named after Mr. Spock and references to Lord of the Rings and The Wizard of Oz. The Our Pluto campaign drew around 60,000 filled-in ballots and 15,000 write-in candidates, SETI’s Mark Showalter told NBC News. “It’s up to the IAU, but since the public was so invested in the process, we thought it was appropriate to let the public know what we’re proposing,” Showalter explained.
A slightly fuzzy shot of Pluto. Expect things to get a little more clear soon. (NASA)