Boulder scientist to talk about groundbreaking mission to Pluto | SteamboatToday.com

Boulder scientist to talk about groundbreaking mission to Pluto

— A NASA spacecraft that has traveled nearly 3 billion miles from Earth during the past nine years has nearly reached Pluto, the smallest and furthest away of the original nine planets, and the one people know the least about.

Launched in January 2006, the New Horizons spacecraft in July will whiz by Pluto, providing clearer images rather than the fuzzy pictures captured by the Hubble Space Telescope and collecting information about the planet's atmosphere, surface and moons.

"This is the first time we will go to Pluto and see what it looks like up close," said Dr. Fran Bagenal, co-investigator and team leader of the plasma investigations on New Horizons and a professor of astrophysical and planetary sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Bagenal was part of an original group of scientists that proposed the New Horizons mission and she has remained involved in the project during the past 25 years.

"We have not done this sort of thing since Voyager," Bagenal said. "And since then, we've been working on this mission to Pluto."

Bagenal will give a free talk about the mission at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Allbright Family Auditorium at Colorado Mountain College. The talk is hosted by the CMC's student astronomy group, the SKY Club.

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"It's always interesting to me when an object that for decades or centuries has been just a dot in a telescope, our eyes will be opened to it," said Jimmy Westlake, a professor of physical science at CMC, SKY Club adviser and a local astronomer. "It's amazing to be living when these kinds of things are happening."

Westlake said he's been following the mission closely in the past 10 years.

"Pluto is the last of the original planets, and now we're going to see what Pluto really looks like," Westlake said.

Of the information that New Horizons might collect about Pluto, Westlake said he's most interested to know whether a past collision might be the cause of Pluto's five known moons, including one about half of Pluto's size.

"I'm hoping there will be some type of visible evidence, or invisible, some type of data to support this," Westlake said.

The Sky Club will have telescopes set up Wednesday for people who are interested in doing some observations after Bagenal's talk.

To reach Teresa Ristow, call 970-871-4206, email tristow@SteamboatToday.com or follow her on Twitter @TeresaRistow