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Life's Prospects on Pluto: September 2019 Issue of Astronomy Magazine [Aug. 14th, 2019|03:52 pm]
Sputnik Planitia 3

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Alan Stern - Pluto: Planet Or Not? [Jul. 21st, 2019|11:48 pm]
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Historic Apollo 11 Moonwalk Footage [Jul. 20th, 2019|11:34 pm]
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Celebrating #Apollo50 [Jul. 20th, 2019|03:05 pm]

There is a lot of new information to report about Pluto, especially from a conference titled “Pluto System After New Horizons” held last week at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (JHUAPL) in Laurel, Maryland, part of which I attended.

But because this blog is not just about Pluto but also about the solar system and planetary science, today I feel compelled to write a post honoring the 50th anniversary of the July 20, 1969, Apollo 11 Moon landing, an accomplishment that can legitimately be considered the most important event in the history of the world and the pinnacle of human achievement.

In June, I received an invitation from Steven Silver to write an article about the personal and cultural impact of the first Moon landing, to be published in a special edition of the Hugo Award-winning fanzine Journey Planet edited by Silver along with James Bacon and Christopher J. Garcia, to be published today.

Because I personally cannot remember anything about the momentous accomplishment that occurred 50 years ago today, I was unsure of what to write and ended up missing the deadline.

The only memory I have of crewed Moon missions is a very vague recollection of the launch of Apollo 17 in December 1972.

Observing the national and even global online celebrations of this event have helped me realize one does not have to actually have been present to recognize the enormity of this day and milestone because this event is bigger than any individual or even country.

And it was followed by a series of exploration projects, both crewed and un-crewed, that transformed the planets of our solar system from remote concepts to real, physical locations we could see and study.

Too often, especially in the news today, we read about and see the worst of humanity—greed, hate, cruelty, corruption, and denial in the face of impending climate disaster. Apollo 11 and subsequent space exploration, much of which required international cooperation, show us the opposite—how much humans can accomplish for good when we come together and work toward a goal.

Anne Frank, who would have been 40 in 1969 and 90 today, famously wrote in her diary, “In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death. I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness; I hear the ever approaching thunder, which will destroy us too; I can feel the sufferings of millions and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again.”

A plaque left by the Apollo astronauts on the Moon, on the site known as Tranquility Base, famously reads, “Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon July 1969, A.D. We came in peace for all mankind.”

The stuff of dreams, the first Moon landing and all subsequent space exploration shine as beacons of hope, not just for the United States, but for all humanity. They confirm that we, all humanity, can come together for good, and that when we do, we can accomplish great things.

I believe that ending the Moon missions, especially when Apollos 18, 19, and 20 were completed for launch, was a mistake. This is likely due to the fact that our Moon missions were motivated more by the desire to win the space race against the former Soviet Union than by the quest for knowledge and exploration. Ultimately, our voyages to the final frontier must be motivated by the compulsion to explore, not by war. When we return humans to the Moon, it needs to be to stay rather than for one moment of victory.

Anne Frank did not live to see it, but the peace and tranquility she saw when looking upward did not just return but reigned supreme on that momentous day in human history 50 years ago. We can best honor Apollo 11 by coming together as one people on one planet, and using our ingenuity, bring emissions and climate change under control and forge a new era of exploration that will ultimately take us to the solar system and the stars.
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Experience Wonder: 125 Years of Lowell Observatory [Jun. 4th, 2019|11:57 pm]
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Support Planetary Blocks: Our Solar System Project--Pluto is Included! [Jun. 4th, 2019|08:07 pm]
The Planetary Society and Chopshop Store and Studio are seeking support for their Kickstarter project featuring a set of 20 Planetary Blocks. These wooden blocks each have six sides with beautiful images and information about various solar system worlds—the Sun, the four terrestrial planets, the four gas giant planets, the four dwarf planes, and eight spherical planetary moons.

Information on each block will include the object’s appearance, relative size, orbital distance, name, composition, and images of the robotic spacecraft sent to explore them. A portion of the sales of these blocks will go toward the Planetary Society.

The Sun, 11 planets, and 8 moons are obviously just some of the solar system’s worlds; these particular ones were chosen because we have the best images and data about them. As more of the solar system is explored, more worlds will likely be added to both the list of those visited and maybe even to those depicted in this project or others like it.

Yes, Pluto is included with the 11 planets! And the eight spherical moons, being rounded by their own gravity, all qualify as planets under the geophysical planet definition—as do more spherical moons that will hopefully be depicted on future blocks. Several ocean worlds in addition to Pluto, such as Jupiter’s moon Europa, are part of this set. These exciting worlds could yet be the first places where we someday find life beyond Earth.

While these blocks are toys, they are not just for kids! They make a terrific gift for all fans of space, planetary science, and the solar system.

Also included with the blocks is a giant fold-out supplemental chart loaded with extra facts and data and expands on the scale and distance sides of the blocks.

This notice comes late, as there is just one day left in the Kickstarter program. The project’s fundraising goal has already been met, but I encourage everyone who can to contribute to the Kickstarter. A variety of rewards come with different contribution levels.

Even when the fundraiser ends tomorrow, June 5, at 11:15 pm EDT, you can still support the project by purchasing these beautiful blocks for anyone who might appreciate them, including yourself!

Our solar system is a wonderful place filled with planets. Learn more about our Sun and some of these planets by supporting this project and by purchasing these planetary blocks. Visit the Kickstarter site at Planetary Blocks: Our Solar System.

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Gas layer may be keeping Pluto's subsurface ocean from freezing [May. 25th, 2019|01:50 pm]
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LIVE! PSW 2409 A Planet Definition Debate [Apr. 28th, 2019|08:07 pm]

Tomorrow night, Monday, April 29, at 8 PM EDT, the Philosophical Society of Washington will livestream A Planet Definition Debate between New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern and former IAU president Ron Ekers. For those who cannot watch live, a recording will be placed online at this site for later viewing. Don't miss this chance to hear the major points of this debate from two people who have played and continue to play leading roles in both sides of the controversy. Viewers watching live will also be able to post comments and questions in the chat section during the event.

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The Naming Process for 2007 OR 10 Should Not Be Biased [Apr. 9th, 2019|08:18 pm]
Today, the Planetary Society opened a naming contest for dwarf planet 2007 OR10, a worthy endeavor. Unfortunately, what should have been a welcoming, uncontroversial invitation has instead been presented in a biased manner that unfairly presents one side of the planet debate as fact without acknowledging the existence of the debate and even goes as far as attempting to help Mike Brown sell his book of errors.

The solicitation of names for this distant object, which is almost certainly large enough to be in hydrostatic equilibrium and therefore classed as a dwarf planet, could easily be done using completely neutral language and sidestepping the planet debate entirely. Instead, the Planetary Society unfortunately allowed itself to be used as an advertising platform for one view and one outspoken proponent of that view.

On the main page, “OR 10 Needs A Name,” 2007 OR 10 is described as a “planetoid,” a term that is a synonym for asteroid and therefore not appropriate for a dwarf planet. Planetoids are objects not large enough to be rounded by their own gravity. The page goes on to support one of the most controversial, offensive, and wrong aspects of the 2006 IAU vote—the placement of dwarf planets under the auspices of the IAU’s Minor Planet Center. This was done solely to placate the late Brian Marsden, who had a long term grudge against Pluto discoverer Clyde Tombaugh and spent decades obsessed with bringing Pluto under the Minor Planet Center’s auspices. Marsden was so fixated on this goal that he publicly stated it at a 1980 celebration of the 50th anniversary of Pluto’s discovery, in the presence of Tombaugh and his family members.

Dwarf planets are not minor planets, at least according to the use of the latter term for the last 150 years, as a synonym for tiny, shapeless objects now labeled by the IAU as “Small Solar System Bodies.”

Interestingly, under the subheading, “Naming A Distant World,” the site, in an effort to highlight the significance of dwarf planets, notes that Eris is the most massive object in the Kuiper Belt but fails to provide any information about Pluto, including the fact that it is the largest object in the region, the one with the most moons, and the solar system’s only known binary planet system. The New Horizons mission is not mentioned anywhere on the site even once.

The most biased information on the site comes under the “Who Are We” section. There, Mike Brown’s biography is nothing less than a platform to promote and sell his book and present solely his view of the planet debate. One particular sentence goes out of its way to state that dwarf planets are not “real planets,” then uses the controversial term “Planet 9” to promote an undiscovered world which many in the Lunar and Planetary Science Institute last summer requested be referred to by the more appropriate appellation “Planet X,” the term traditionally used for a hypothesized but undiscovered world.

“Among his numerous scientific accomplishments, he is best known for his discovery of Eris, the most massive object found in the solar system in 150 years, and the object which led to the debate and eventual demotion of Pluto from a real planet to a dwarf planet. He is also one of the first proponents of Planet 9, a proposed Neptune-sized body lurking in the outer Solar System beyond Neptune.”

Neither are genuinely fair and balanced; at times both are worthy of the terms “Fake News” and “alternative facts,” as is some of the writing on this website.

The discovery of Eris is not about “killing” Pluto. It is about the finding of a whole new category of planets in the outer solar system. For some reason, Brown cannot appreciate this.

His biography devolves into an outright sales pitch with the words, “Mike is also author of "How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming", an award winning best-selling memoir of the discoveries leading to the demotion of Pluto.”

Brown’s book is neither award-winning nor best-selling. Even if it were, why is the Planetary Society allowing him to use its site to sell books?

Interestingly, David Rabinowitz’s biography is also on the site, as he too was a co-discoverer of 2007 OR 10. Rabinowitz also co-discovered Eris and significantly, signed the petition of 300 planetary scientists who rejected the IAU planet definition. Somehow, the latter fact is never mentioned in the paragraph about him.

Unlike the New Horizons-sponsored naming contests for features on Pluto and its moons and for 2014 MU69,  the object that became known as Ultima Thule, this contest does not allow entrants to provide name suggestions of their own. Only three names are presented, and voters must choose one of the three. Why not open the contest up to more suggestions as a means of further engaging the public in this exciting discovery?

The site notes that ultimately, 2007 OR 10’s name will be selected by the IAU Committee for Small Body Nomenclature, raising yet another error created by the 2006 IAU vote. This committee is for naming small solar system bodies—objects not large enough or massive enough to be spherical. In contrast, dwarf planets are planets, and their naming should fall under the IAU Working Group for Public Naming of Planets and Planetary Satellites.

By all means, go ahead and vote in this contest. The goal is worthy but the means to it, namely this website and the choices made in creating it, represent a lost opportunity to introduce the public to the wonders of Kuiper Belt planets without promoting someone’s agenda and pretending that one side of an ongoing debate is fact. The Planetary Society knows better than this. We don’t need fake news and alternative facts when the reality is so much more wondrous.
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