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Pluto is not a giant comet! [May. 30th, 2018|05:08 pm]
Within the past week, you may have seen reports of a study that some scientists say indicates Pluto is actually a giant comet that was formed by the aggregation of billions of comets. This is not true! What the study actually found is that both Sputnik Planitia, the left side of Pluto's heart feature, and Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, both were found to have the same isotope of nitrogen on their surfaces. While this is true and suggests they may originate in the same region of the solar system, it does not mean Pluto is a giant comet! In this case, people erroneously drew a conclusion without sufficient data to confirm that conclusion.

Below is a good article by planetary scientist Philip Metzger explaining why Pluto is not a giant comet.

Icy Worlds and Stars with Long Hair - Philip Metzger
Are icy worlds like Pluto just comets because they're made of ice? This post looks at what planets made of and looks at the amazing insides of icy worlds.
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Tom Siegfried, former editor of Science News: Pluto's Demotion Ignores Astronomical History [May. 26th, 2018|01:02 pm]
They keep on coming! Here is yet another terrific article about the issue of planet definition and the many problems with the 2006 IAU definition, this time by Tom Siefried, former editor of Science News.


Siegfried's article refers to a new scientific paper by Philip Metzger, Mark Sykes, Alan Stern, and Kirby Runyon, which can be found at https://arxiv.org/abs/1805.04115.
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Guest Blog: Revisiting the definition of a planet - Astronomy Magazine - Interactive Star Charts, Pl [May. 18th, 2018|01:30 pm]
This is my response to Ethan Siegel's May 8 Forbes.com article, "You Won't Like the Consequences of Making Pluto a Planet Again," posted on Astronomy Magazine's blog site.

Guest Blog: Revisiting the definition of a planet - Astronomy Magazine - Interactive Star Charts, Planets, Meteors, Comets, Telescopes
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An organically grown planet definition: From Astronomy magazine [May. 17th, 2018|05:18 pm]
An organically grown planet definition
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Should you care about Pluto? We asked NASA's Alan Stern and astrobiologist David Grinspoon [May. 11th, 2018|01:33 pm]
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Chasing New Horizons: An epic exploration to a strange new world [May. 9th, 2018|01:08 am]


Close to three years after the historic New Horizons Pluto flyby wowed the world, mission principal investigator Alan Stern and astrobiologist and mission science team member David Grinspoon tell the riveting story of a monumental exploration 26 years in the making in their new book Chasing New Horizons: Inside the Epic First Mission to Pluto.

Much like a novel, the book starts with a crisis, the loss of contact with the spacecraft just ten days before the flyby, then goes back to the beginning of everything and narrates the story chronologically, from Stern’s birth through the first thoughts of a Pluto mission just as Voyager 2 visited Neptune in 1989, and the many twists and turns, setbacks and victories that culminated in the triumphant 2015 Pluto flyby.

Stern and Grinspoon are scientists, yet this book is first and foremost a narrative, one that takes readers along on a multi-decade effort that started as a vision by young scientists whose efforts were stymied by a powerful and often set-in-its ways establishment.

From the initial “Pluto Underground” visionaries to the steadfast team members who overcame what seemed like never-ending challenges, readers are familiarized with the many resourceful, persistent characters who made the mission happen, to the point that it feels like we know them personally and are there with them during the journey.

At times, Stern and Grinspoon make references to popular science fiction such as Star Wars and Star Trek, an interesting choice given that Chasing New Horizons often reads and feels like a Star Trek movie. Like chief engineer Scotty, the mission team always manages to find a way to work within what seem to be impossible limitations in terms of time and budget.

One problem is successfully dealt with only to lead to another. If just one of many cancellations or crises or decisions had gone a different way, there would have been no Pluto mission at all, the writers note while recounting each of the do-or-die moments.

Much like the discovery of Pluto itself by Clyde Tombaugh, the story of New Horizons is a tale of persistence. When he arrived at Lowell Observatory in 1929, Tombaugh was told by a professional astronomer that he was “wasting his time” searching for an undiscovered planet. In 2000, after Stern’s team had worked on a mission proposal for 18 months, NASA Associate Administrator for science Ed Weiler canceled the entire Pluto project, declaring it “dead, dead, dead.”

But the “Pluto Underground” refused to accept a death sentence. Humorously, the writers titled the chapter immediately following this declaration, “The Undead.”

In total, proposed Pluto missions were canceled five times. If not for the incredible persistence of those committed to making one happen, the world today would still know little about this mysterious world.

“We really need an orbiter that can map 100 percent of everything in the Pluto system. We want to bring radar to look down to the ice; we want to bring mass spectrometers to sample the atmosphere; we want thermal mappers,” Stern told Spaceflight Insider, New Horizons raised so many questions about Pluto and its moons that Pluto scientists are already laying the groundwork for a Pluto orbiter.

By raising the strong possibility that Pluto has a subsurface ocean, the mission has put Pluto on the radar screen of scientists who study ocean worlds and want to visit a broad sample of these worlds, Stern noted.

New Horizons was about more than science; it was about the motivation to explore a “strange new world,”to “go where no one has gone before.” The motivation to explore kept the dream alive even when everything seemed lost.

When it finally happened, the flyby was as much about aesthetics and beauty as it was about science, Stern and Grinspoon note. With its diverse surface features and iconic heart-shaped region named for Clyde Tombaugh, Pluto turned out to be a beautiful, breathtaking world.

Recounting an especially poignant moment in the epilogue “Coda: A Final Discovery,” Stern and Grinspoon recount New Horizons’ unanticipated human impact as a new generation’s Apollo experience with a moving story about how the flyby inspired a Florida teenager to go from failing school to being an A student upon deciding he wanted a career in space exploration.

“The book is really an adventure story about how a bunch of young scientists who were determined managed to overcome the system and make the farthest exploration in the history of human exploration. And it’s a story about how you build space missions and plan flybys and also about the science,” Stern said. “It’s three stories woven together.”
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"Yes, Pluto is a Planet"--Terrific Washington Post article by Alan Stern and David Grinspoon [May. 7th, 2018|09:19 pm]
This Washington Post article by Alan Stern and David Grinspoon does a great job in presenting the case for Pluto's planet status. This is a must read for Pluto supporters and advocates of the geophysical planet definition.

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Chasing New Horizons by Alan Stern and David Grinspoon [Apr. 30th, 2018|08:11 pm]
Chasing New Horizons

Chasing New Horizons: Inside the Epic First Mission to Pluto, co-written by New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern and David Grinspoon, a member of the New Horizons science team, will be published and available for purchase as of May 1, 2018. I am currently reading the book, which I will review for Spaceflight Insider, which I will then link to this blog.

The fascinating story of New Horizons is a tribute to the persistence and passion of the scientists who first came up with the idea of a mission to Pluto--all the way back in 1989!

Learn more about the book and order it from its official page at https://read.macmillan.com/lp/chasing-new-horizons-by-alan-stern-and-david-grinspoon/ .

The book has a Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/ChasingNewHorizonsBook/

A schedule of Stern and Grinspoon's book tour can be found at https://alanstern.space/events/ . At the bottom of this page, you can sign up for regular email updates on the authors' book talks and related events.

Major congratulations to Stern and Grinspoon on the book's publication. Like all things Pluto, the New Horizons mission has an inspiring and exciting story.
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Geophysical Planet Definition: Discussion led by Kirby Runyon [Mar. 29th, 2018|12:17 am]

Presentations and discussion at the 2018 Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (LPSC) about the geophysical planet definition and the 100s of objects it recognizes as planets within our Solar System. Pluto IS a full-fledged planet (and so are a lot of other round worlds)!
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Debunking an Urban Legend of Asteroidal Proportions - Philip Metzger [Mar. 17th, 2018|02:36 pm]
Planetary scientist and physicist Philip Metzger has written a very informative blog entry debunking misconceptions about the alleged past demotion of asteroids from planets to non-planets. Below is the link to his entry, which summarizes a paper he cowrote with fellow planetary scientists Mark Sykes, Alan Stern, and Kirby Runyon for publication in a science journal and for a public presentation, "Planetary Taxonomy: The Geophysical Planet Definition," which will be presented tomorrow, Sunday, March 18, 2018, at the Lunar and Planetary Sciences Conference 2018.


A pre-print of the whole journal article is available for download here:


Just how unscientific has the IAU been about planet definition over the years? Metzger tells this shocking story:

"I mentioned above about authorities'imposing decisions on individual scientists.' Does that really happen? Well, the IAU tried to make it happen. A colleague who is on the editorial board of one of the major planetary science journals told me that the IAU wrote to the editors and asked them to deny publication to any manuscript that doesn’t bend the knee to accept the IAU’s definitions. My colleague says the editors decided to reject the request. Thankfully so! Scientific freedom lives to fight another day."
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