Flagstaff Festival of Science Exploring New Horizons with Pluto Mission Boss
Flyby Data to be shared in Pluto’s Hometown
FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – As the New Horizons spacecraft flies farther and faster than any mission ever before, scientists expect to soon have a better understanding of the mysterious dwarf planet Pluto, its five moons and the vast Kuiper Belt, where hundreds of other icy worlds exist. The man heading up the mission, planetary scientist Alan Stern, Ph.D., will be in the town where Pluto was discovered to share the first images and interpret the latest data during the Flagstaff Festival of Science, Exploring New Horizons, Sept. 18-27, 2015.
“We’re on Pluto’s doorstep and we don’t know what we’re going to find,” says Stern, who is scheduled to deliver the Festival’s Shoemaker Keynote Presentation at 7 p.m., Friday, Sept. 18 in Northern Arizona University’s Ardrey Auditorium.
Currently the best images of Pluto reveal only a spherical blur; however, Stern says sophisticated cameras on the spacecraft are capable of capturing pictures of features the size of a pond, revealing Pluto’s geology. As the mission travels through the Kuiper Belt, a region three times greater than the distance from the Sun to Neptune, Stern says scientists will be looking for answers about how the planets were built.
“The great thing about the Kuiper Belt where Pluto orbits, is it’s a region of the solar system that’s kind of frozen in time in the early days of the solar system. It’s like an archaeological dig into the history of the solar system,” said Stern. “So, let’s go back in time to that era when the planets were forming and that’s what this mission is all about.”
New Horizons is a NASA space probe that was launched in 2006. After a decade-long, three-billion-mile voyage, it is scheduled to fly by Pluto on July 14, prompting Lowell Observatory to declare 2015 the “Year of Pluto.” Lowell astronomer Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto in 1930. Historically identified as a planet, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) reclassified Pluto as a dwarf planet in 2006.
Stern is an advocate for Pluto retaining its status as a planet, explaining that Pluto is one of many in a new category of planets. In addition to his role as principal investigator of the New Horizons mission, Stern has participated in 26 planetary space missions. From 2007-2008 he served as NASA’s Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate, NASA’s top-ranking official for science. In 2007, Time magazine listed him as one of the 100 most influential people in the world.
The Flagstaff Festival of Science is a free, 10-day event with more than 90 different activities. The 2015 Festival will feature the Dark Skies Coalition “Flagstaff Star Party,” as well as field trips, guided hikes, archaeological excavations, chemistry magic shows, presentations and interactive exhibits.
Major sponsors of the Festival making it possible to provide free science educational experiences include the City of Flagstaff BBB tax revenues, Flagstaff Arts Council, Northern Arizona University, W. L. Gore & Associates, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Arizona, the Arizona Community Foundation of Flagstaff, Science Foundation Arizona and the Stardust Foundation.
For updates on the developing program, visit the Festival’s Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/flagstaff.scifest or website at www.scifest.org.