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Closing In on Planet Pluto: an Interview with New Horizons PI Alan Stern

Artist's impression of the New Horizons flyby in July 2015. (NASA/SwRI)

Artist’s impression of the New Horizons flyby in July 2015. (NASA/SwRI)

After more than nine years of traveling through space the New Horizons spacecraft is now in the home stretch of its journey, with less than 120 days and 143 million kilometers to go before it makes its historic flyby of the Pluto system on July 14. It will be the first time we get a good close-up look at the distant world which had for over seven decades held reign over the frozen edges of our Solar System as the outermost planet, much like its namesake governed the cold darkness of the mythological Greek underworld.

Discovered on February 18, 1930, the ninth planet Pluto lost its “full” planetary status in August 2006 as the result of a highly-contested decision by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) to create a new class of “dwarf planets,” of which Pluto, Ceres, and the then-recently-discovered Eris became charter members. Seven months after New Horizons launched, the edict did not sit well with both many members of the planetary science community and the public, who were suddenly informed that little Pluto just didn’t measure up and had to be let go… nothing serious, right?

Wrong. It was a serious scientific issue for many people, and especially for Dr. Alan Stern, Associate Vice President of Space Science and Engineering at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, CO and principal investigator of New Horizons. And understandably so – Dr. Stern’s planetary exploration mission is on its way to Pluto after all, and what it’s expected to encounter is far more complex than what’s implied by the diminutive moniker of “dwarf planet” (which, oddly enough, was coined by Stern himself in 1990.)

I had a change to talk briefly with Dr. Stern on Friday, March 13 – which, incidentally, was the 85th anniversary of Pluto’s first announcement to the world – and got some insight from him on the mission and what we can expect from the upcoming flyby, as well as his views on the whole “planet/dwarf planet” thing. (And yes, it certainly does still matter!)
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Here’s Your Chance to Name a Crater on Mercury!

Artist’s rendering of MESSENGER in orbit around Mercury. (NASA/JOHNS HOPKINS UNIVERSITY APPLIED PHYSICS LABORATORY/CARNEGIE INSTITUTION OF WASHINGTON)

Artist’s rendering of MESSENGER in orbit around Mercury.
(NASA/JOHNS HOPKINS UNIVERSITY APPLIED PHYSICS LABORATORY/CARNEGIE INSTITUTION OF WASHINGTON)

On March 18, 2011, MESSENGER became the first human-made spacecraft to enter orbit around Mercury. Now almost four years, eight billion miles, and over 260,000 images later, MESSENGER is nearing the end of its operational life.

To commemorate the many achievements of the mission, scientists from NASA and the MESSENGER teams at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory and the Carnegie Institution for Science are giving people around the world the opportunity to name five craters on Mercury — names which, once selected, will become official through the IAU!

Read the rest of this article here.

John Lennon Memorialized with a Crater on Mercury

Mercury's Lennon crater as seen from NASA's MESSENGER spacecraft. Image Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab/Carnegie Institution

Mercury’s Lennon crater as seen from NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft in January 2013.
Image Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab/Carnegie Institution

33 years after his death, John Lennon’s name has been officially given to a crater on Mercury. Imagine that.

The 95 km (59 mile) wide Lennon crater is one of ten newly named craters on the planet, joining 114 other craters named since NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft’s first Mercury flyby in January 2008.

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Vote to Name Pluto’s Moons!

"Would ya give these guys a name already?"

“Would ya give these guys names already?”

I’ve written about this a couple of times before and put up polls here on Lights in the Dark, but now it’s actually semi-official: you can vote on the names for Pluto’s newest moons!

(Looks like they may have taken some of our earlier suggestions too!)

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Here’s Something Else to Vote On: Names for Pluto’s Newest Moons!

Hubble image of the newly-expanded Pluto family (NASA, ESA and M. Showalter/SETI)

Since we’re all in the democratic mood here today in the U.S., how about another chance to put your vote in on something: names for Pluto’s newest moons!

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Why Did Pluto Lose Its Planet Status?


My Very Eager Mother Just Served Us Nine…… um… Nine…………. Just Served Us Nachos?

Artist’s vision of Pluto’s surface. Image: NASA

Like it or not, everyone’s favorite far-flung world Pluto is no longer considered a full-fledged planet, at least not in the International Astronomical Union’s book. It’s now a dwarf planet, sharing its status with other icy worlds beyond the orbit of Neptune (as well as an overgrown asteroid called Ceres.) But why was Pluto demoted in the first place? What prompted the astronomy community to scrutinize Pluto’s credentials and make a decision that upset millions of people worldwide (not to mention more than a few grade-school classes)?

Universe Today shares an informative article regarding this, along with a video created by Christian Ready (above). Read the article here.

Personally, I’m ok with it either way. Regardless of what we call it Pluto is still a fascinating world deserving of our investigation. And if anything, it’s gotten it even more attention over the past several years than it ever got since its discovery! Not bad for a chilly little planet – er, dwarf planet –  over 5 billion km away.

For more on the IAU’s controversial 2006 decision, click here.

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