Pluto and Beyond: space historian speaks at MoR

Andrew Chaikin, a world-renowned space historian and journalist, gave a talk about space exploration, and particularly the most recent development of NASA’s voyage to Pluto, on Monday Nov. 2  at the Museum of the Rockies. His discussion reminded the general audience why humans have been enthralled with the vast enormity surrounding Earth ever since they have been conscious and cognitive beings. For those beyond the general audience, his discussion provided an in-depth insight into the realm of space.

When 6:30 p.m. hit, so did the early arrivals; it was a cold and rainy night with the promise of snow. There were no stars, as the sky was blanched by a cover of thick cloud. People congregated indoors – in relief of the rain – to discuss the immense darkness and the secrets yet undiscovered. Terms like “neutronium mechanics,” “astrophysics” and “quantum physics” echoed throughout the auditorium as people found their seats.

At 7 p.m., Chaikin, once a self described “young space-struck five year old” found his place at the podium to a round of applause from the audience. He began his talk stating, “I’m going to take you on a little trip,” and for the next hour, the trip was set to full throttle.

Chaikin is one of the scientists on the New Horizons team, an exploratory mission lead by Alan Stern, the chief scientist, who first conceived of the mission 25 years ago. Chaikin is a journalist for the team, and his capacity and passion for space exploration made his talk easy to follow even for those not immersed in science.

The New Horizons Spacecraft is one of the intriguing aspects of the mission. It is the “size of a grand piano” and “weighs 1,100 pounds … pretty light for a spacecraft.” When it was launched on January 19, 2006 it “left the Earth going faster than any man-made object has ever left Earth: 36,000 miles per hour.”

Chaikin gave perspective to the audience, saying, “it took the Apollo astronauts – when they went to the moon – about three days to get from the Earth to the moon, [New Horizons] crossed the orbit of the moon nine hours after leaving Earth, and within a year it was flying past Jupiter.” Nine and a half years later, New Horizons finally passed Pluto.

When the craft reached Pluto on July 14, 2015, man “finally explored the farthest planet” in the solar system. This date is also significant because exactly 50 years prior “another robotic explorer flew by Mars and took the very first close-up pictures of another planet.”

What researchers found on the surface of Pluto was of course surprising. They found “frozen plains,” “frozen-water mountains” and even came up with “technical term[s]” like “reddish-brown stuff” to describe the surface of some parts of Pluto. They speculate that “some parts of Pluto are still forming” but “it’s very early in the discovery process” so a lot is still unknown about Pluto.

Chaikin ended the discussion stating the fact that “Pluto is not alone” and there may be over “1,000 planets” all with disjointed orbits in the Kuiper Belt, an expanse of thousands of “icy worlds beyond Neptune.”

There will be more to come from New Horizons as it should take “about a year to get all the images and information about Pluto,” while the spacecraft travels further into the abyss of space. For more informationon the current progress of New Horizons, go to nasa.gov/mission_pages/newhorizons/main/index.html.