Jimmy Westlake: Our first look at Pluto
July 20, 2015
The date was July 14, 1965. This 11-year-old astronomer-to-be had eyes glued to the black-and-white TV set sitting on a table in the living room corner as the 6 p.m. news flashed images of an alien world to planet Earth for the first time. The entire world held its collective breath as NASA's Mariner 4 spacecraft sailed past the red planet Mars at close range. Human exploration of our solar system via robot emissary had begun.
Similar to many others, I had hoped to see images of alien forests and cities and canals on the surface of Mars, but the fuzzy images revealed, instead, an ancient, cratered, lifeless surface, much like that of our own moon. Those first images from another planet were revolutionary, if disappointing. They changed our perception of the planet Mars forever.
Zoom forward precisely 50 years to the day. NASA's New Horizons spacecraft was skimming over the surface of Pluto on July 14, preparing to send back the first close-up images of former planet No. 9. This astronomer fully expected to see an ancient, cratered, icy wasteland in those first images from the edge of the solar system, as did many other astronomers. Boy, were we surprised.
As New Horizons approached Pluto, still days away from its closest pass, one of the first surface features resolved by its digital eyes was a bright heart-shaped region, hundreds of miles across. By chance, it was this region that would be directly under the spacecraft during its closest moments.
At the NASA press conference last week, where the first close-up images of Pluto were released, New Horizons mission principle investigator Alan Stern brought the packed house to its feet when he announced that the "heart of Pluto" would be called Tombaugh Regio, after the deceased American astronomer Clyde Tombaugh, who discovered Pluto back in 1930.
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Clyde's two now elderly children were there on his behalf while Clyde's ashes were zooming past Pluto onboard New Horizons. Watching on my laptop computer sitting on my office desk, I wept.
OK — what about those first pictures? Pluto turns out to be surprisingly short of impact craters. Because no solar system object was spared the baptism of fire called the "heavy bombardment" at the time of its formation, a lack of craters can mean only one thing: Pluto has been recently resurfaced by various tectonic and geological processes.
For a small, icy body out in the frozen recesses of the outer solar system, this discovery is phenomenal, even revolutionary. Planetary scientists thought that small icy worlds such as Pluto could only retain enough internal heat to resurface themselves if they were tortured moons of a giant planet, caught in a tidal tug-of-war. This clearly is not the case for Pluto.
How can little Pluto melt its surface, thrust up Rocky Mountain class peaks of ice and generate a nitrogen atmosphere, all the while being less than one-fifth the diameter of the Earth? Enigmatic Pluto has sent scientists scurrying back to the drawing boards.
From nearly four billion miles away, New Horizons can only send its stored treasure of Pluto images and data back in a slow trickle. Consequently, Pluto will reveal itself to us slowly, piece by puzzle piece, during the next several months.
The first few images have been breathtaking, stark, magnificent, revolutionary — all of that. But, the best may be yet to come down that long pike.
Fifty years. That's all it took us to complete the first survey of the nine classical planets in our solar system, thanks to the Herculean efforts of thousands of individuals and the taxpayer dollars of millions. For perspective, it took Christopher Columbus 11 years to complete the initial exploration of his "New World." You and I, we are most fortunate to be alive during this unprecedented age of exploration. You only see planets up close for the first time … once.
Professor Jimmy Westlake teaches astronomy and physics at Colorado Mountain College’s Alpine Campus. His “Celestial News” column appears weekly in the Steamboat Today newspaper and his “Cosmic Moment” radio spots can be heard on local radio station KFMU. Check out Jimmy's astrophotography website at http://www.jwestlake.com.
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