A different kind of love was in the air at the Cosmosphere on Valentine’s Day: a love for exploration.
Night one of the Cosmosphere’s Pluto-Palooza featured a TED talk-style presentation with four members of NASA’s New Horizons mission team. The New Horizons mission has included exploration of Pluto and continues on into the Kuiper Belt. Team members included Kansas native and New Horizons Project Manager Glen Fountain, Mission Operations Manager Alice Bowman and research scientists Joel Parker and Kelsi Singer.
The discussion included some historical background into Pluto, as well as new discoveries made by the New Horizons spacecraft’s flight through the Pluto system.
1. Pluto has a heart shape on its surface
Pluto-Palooza was picked for Valentine’s Day partially because of the heart shape discovered on its surface by pictures from the New Horizons spacecraft. The heart-shaped area is known as the Tombaugh Regio, and the “left ventricle” piece is known as Sputnik Planitia. The region is a large nitrogen ice field and is craterless. It could be less than 10 million years old.
“Craters are the clock we use to measure a body’s age,” Parker said. “The more craters it has, the more it’s been impacted and the older it is.”
2. Pluto was discovered by a Kansas farmer
Pluto was discovered in 1930 by Clyde Tombaugh of Burdett – after whom the Tombaugh Regio is named. Tombaugh built many of his own telescopes and was eventually offered a job at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona.
3. Pluto is geologically active
Photographs and other information gathered by the New Horizons spacecraft revealed that Pluto is an active world. The surface contains mountains of water ice – as hard as concrete at such cold temperatures, according to Parker. It also has active glaciers.
“To be active and so far from the Sun, it must have a heat source of some kind,” Parker said. “That is a mystery we are still trying to figure out.”
4. The New Horizons spacecraft had five senses, similar to humans
The New Horizons spacecraft was outfitted with three cameras to mimic a sense of sight and allow it to take photographs of Pluto, but it had other senses as well. A large radio antenna allowed it to speak and hear – sending and receiving information to and from the operations center. Solar wind and energetic particle detectors gave it a sense of smell and taste, and other particle detectors allowed it to “touch.”
5. The Pluto system is very strange
Pluto’s moon, Charon, is about half the size of Pluto but doesn’t orbit around the dwarf planet. The two are actually in a binary system, meaning they orbit around each other, and the orbit point is off of Pluto, somewhere between the two. New Horizons also discovered that the system has four much smaller moons orbiting erratically around the two.
Since completing its flight through the Pluto system, the New Horizons spacecraft is on its way to another space body: 2014 MU69. The team discovered the much smaller MU69 after seeing it move relative to the stars. The New Horizons craft will fly past MU69 on New Year’s Eve and Jan. 1, 2019.
The Cosmosphere will have another event today with the New Horizons team as part of Pluto-Palooza night two. The day’s events begin with Coffee at the Cosmo from 9 to 10 a.m., where the New Horizons team will present on the mission again. That evening, the Cosmosphere will host “Starry Night: Pluto-Palooza” from 7 to 9 p.m. at Hobart-Detter Field in Carey Park.
The stargazing event will be attended by members from the New Horizons team. Viewing equipment will be available.