Friday, February 21, 2014
From the New Horizons mission at http://pluto.jhuapl.edu/http://pluto.jhuapl.edu/
"On Video: What Is Pluto?
Pluto has been a newsmaker and topic of scientific fascination since Clyde Tombaugh discovered it in February 1930. While conversations continue about Pluto's planetary identity, at least one theme carried through the talks at last summer’s Pluto Science Conference."
Tuesday, February 18, 2014
Eighty-four years ago today, a junior astronomer at Flagstaff, Arizona’s Lowell Observatory discovered a new planet while blinking photographic plates taken of the sky a few weeks earlier.
A little more than one year from now, the strange new world this young astronomer discovered will be revealed to us up close in glorious detail by the New Horizons mission. What has appeared to us for so long as little more than a tiny dot will become a real place, with landscape features, color, and texture.
This is why the mission’s Principal Investigator, Dr. Alan Stern, describes 2014 as “Pluto Eve”—the last year in which we will know Pluto as a tiny dot, or in the best Hubble pictures, two tiny spheres surrounded by four even smaller ones. In January, the New Horizons Science Team held the first of four two-day workshops in preparation for the flyby, refining plans for each of the spacecraft’s seven scientific instruments, assessing any danger to the spacecraft from dust and debris in Pluto’s vicinity, and preparing for the big reveal of the poster child for the solar system’s third class of planets.
Also one year from now, the Dawn mission will arrive at Ceres and settle into orbit around the small planet first discovered in 1801, revealing the secrets of that world, which, like Pluto, might potentially harbor a subsurface ocean.
Two years from now, we will know more about this third class of planets than anyone has ever known in human history. No one was quite sure what Clyde Tombaugh discovered in 1930 because it didn’t quite match anyone’s expectations. In one year, we will finally know.
More than seven years ago, the mainstream media did a tremendous public disservice by blindly accepting the controversial IAU planet definition and demotion of Pluto as fact rather than as one side in an ongoing debate. This is why we continue to see articles describing Pluto as “the former ninth planet,” an object “once considered a planet,” etc.
One year from now, the New Horizons team will present the public with a much more accurate story, from discovery of the tiny planet to the fight for a mission there, canceled multiple times before finally being given the green light. They will describe and define a world based on real observations in real time, not by a fiat determined in a closed backroom deal by 424 people, most of whom never studied Pluto.
Chances are, both New Horizons and Dawn will discover, or re-discover, two small but fascinating planets. And the media, educators, textbook publishers, etc. will have a second chance to get it right, to make judgment calls based on numbers, images, and data rather than on the word of a self-appointed “authority.” Discoverer Clyde Tombaugh would have been 109 had he lived to see the New Horizons flyby. His ashes are among several items on board the spacecraft, so in one way, he will get a close-up view of the planet he discovered. His large family will eagerly await the close up images of the world he found during the depths of the Great Depression.
A paradigm shift is taking place, one we are only now coming to understand. We live in a solar system filled with planets, and small, Pluto-like worlds constitute the majority of those planets. There is no need for one static planet number that never changes to describe our solar system, just like there is no need for an unchanging number of stars or of galaxies or of exoplanets or of moons for the gas giants. The new reality is that these numbers will not and should not ever be constants. They are and will be ever-changing as new discoveries continue to be made.
Using the logic of those who claim that a solar system of hundreds or thousands of planets will somehow “devalue” the meaning of the term, we could similarly conclude that the terms “star,” “galaxy,” “black hole,” “nebula,” etc. are all of no value since the universe contains uncountable numbers of all of them. Or, we can accept true change in line with every discovery of the last 400+ years, specifically, that we live in a universe with billions of those things we once believed were rare and few in number. But the fact that they number in the billions does not in any way diminish their value. The New Horizons team is putting out video “previews” anticipating the flyby, much the way movies and TV shows release trailers to excite people about upcoming releases.
Here, just in time to celebrate the 84th anniversary of the discovery of the solar system’s 10th planet (counting Ceres as fifth, Jupiter as sixth, etc.), is the latest preview:
The video and updates from Dr. Stern can be found here: http://pluto.jhuapl.edu/
And here is a music video the band Elias Fey made to accompany their song, “A Tribute to Clyde Tombaugh and the New Horizons Mission”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QVnqW2YcMKI
Friday, January 31, 2014
Tuesday, January 28, 2014
Saturday, December 21, 2013
Today is one of those days when I will deviate from the usual Pluto-centered entries to honor an occasion that has profound meaning for me and for many on this planet—the Winter Solstice, the original reason for the December holidays, though reversed in the Southern Hemisphere.
We hear a lot about miracles at this time of year. One powerful reason for this is that those of us in the Northern Hemisphere experience and take part in the greatest miracle of all—the return of the light after a long period of increasing darkness.
Long before anyone knew that the Earth orbits the Sun and that its axial tilt is the cause of our seasons, people dreaded the end of summer and the onset of darkness and cold. When there is no central heating and no possibility of growing one’s own food, survival is in question. As the Sun’s strength appeared to wane following the Autumn Equinox, people’s fears and anxieties increased as they faced the looming lean winter season.
Today, so much of the holiday season has become disconnected from the Winter Solstice, and much of the atmosphere of December focuses on what divides us instead of on what unites us. At a time when our actions are plunging us toward mass extinctions and environmental catastrophe, when we desperately need to reconnect with our planet and its web of life, we instead worship money and material things, which ironically are responsible for this disastrous course.
As an actress, I had a lot of outdoor performing gigs this year, and one of the benefits of this was the chance to reconnect with our planet and its seasonal rhythms. From rehearsing in winter coats in early spring, waiting impatiently for the warmth and the budding of new leaves, to all-day Renaissance fairs at the height of the Sun’s power, to an outdoor film set for three days in bright sunlight and 95-degree temperatures, to five weeks at a Halloween theme park along a trail, watching nature slowly go into dormancy, I experienced the year and each season of it vividly, profoundly, and powerfully.
The death part of the cycle, from late September to early November, was more serene than scary. Even though I was dressed as a ghost with white face paint along a haunted trail full of animatronics and fake monsters, what was most real was the sense of Earth going to sleep, which I could actually feel as I sat on the ground waiting to jump out and scare the next person.
When one has the opportunity to be one with nature, to feel the seasonal changes on a deep, intuitive level, it becomes a lot harder to take part in activities that harm the precious Earth with which we bonded.
That is why our society and so many people could benefit from celebrating the seasons as a way to understand, not just on a rational level, but on an experiential one, that we are not separate from the Earth, that, as one song states, “We live as she lives; we die as she dies.”
Myths and symbolism are another path toward attaining that understanding. Even though we know the Sun doesn’t change on our shortest day, the ancient story in which the Sun dies only to be reborn and begin a new cycle at the Winter Solstice, speaks powerfully to us with hope, affirming that there is no end to life, only an end to one cycle and the beginning of another.
An old Jewish legend says that Adam and Eve were created at the Autumnal Equinox, when the lengths of day and night were equal. However, they soon noticed that the daylight was diminishing more and more, and they began to seriously fear that the Sun would die, and the world would once again be plunged into formlessness and void.
When it appeared things couldn’t get any worse, Adam desperately prayed to God, who responded by telling him, wait and watch for three days, and after that, celebrate for seven days. He didn’t know what that meant but followed God’s instructions anyway. And on those three days, the Sun appeared to stand still, its southward movement stopped.
On the fourth day, the miracle happened. The Sun began to move again, but this time, it reversed course, moving northward. The days began getting longer. And Adam and Eve understood that the path of the Sun is a cycle, and such is the way of the world. And they celebrated for seven days, as people have done for thousands of years to this very day.
I am not a creationist or literal believer in the Bible or in any myth, but at the same time, I recognize symbolic truth hidden in these stories. From the beginning, human beings experienced the increasing darkness in fall, and felt the anticipatory terror followed by intense joy when the Sun appeared to return, bringing new light and warmth, the promise of spring.
Twenty-first century humans can be scientifically literate and still retain spirituality, the sense of the transcendent. Celebrating the Winter Solstice offers us this gift. To truly receive it, we need to get out of the malls and step into nature.
As our ecosystems face unprecedented collapse, as our planet faces the increasing perils of global warming and toxic pollution, we would do well to remember this, to understand beyond words that we are a part of the web of life and that whatever we do to that web, we do to ourselves.
"We’ll count all our blessings while the Mother lays down
With snow as her blanket, covering the ground.
Thanks to the Mother for the joy that she brings;
She’ll waken to warm us again in the Spring.”
~from “A Fire Is Burning,” a Winter Solstice song