Rock stargazers anticipate heavenly show



Adam Riddle, an SRU computer science, history and philosophy major from Slippery Rock, points to an image of Pluto he projected on the dome of SRU's Planetarium.

July 14, 2015

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. - The dwarf planet Pluto, formerly the ninth planet in our solar system, is about to reveal some of its icy secrets, and Slippery Rock University stargazers are out of this world excited by the promise of new discovery.

Professors, students and backyard astronomers are eagerly awaiting today's NASA's photo-and-research flyby of Pluto, an icy world 4.7 billion miles and another million light-years of mystery away from Earth.

"It is a historic moment. I will be glued to the NASA website," said Krishna Mukherjee, SRU assistant professor of physics and pre-engineering, who teaches astronomy. "The biggest concern is whether the instruments on the spacecraft will survive if debris hits it."

The Houston, we have a close encounter moment was expected at 7:49 a.m. this morning, when the New Horizons space probe reached its nearest proximity to the planet ¬- 7,800 miles. The probe is taking pictures and gathering data on Pluto, which was discovered in 1930, and its moons.

When its Pluto mission is accomplished, New Horizons will sweep continue its journey to the Kuiper Belt, the region of the solar system beyond the planets.

"We should all be excited, if only for the thrill of exploring the unknown," said Adam Riddle, a computer science, history and philosophy major from Slippery Rock who creates space videos and offers technical support for planetarium shows offered in SRU's Planetarium.

New Horizons, launched nine years ago, is expected to gather data on Pluto's surface, temperature, atmosphere, geology, ice content and more. Initial photographs revealed four dark spots on Pluto's far side, which scientists dubbed "brass knuckles."

Many people will be orbiting between the computer and television over the next few days for news.



"This is a totally different world that is opening us to us," Mukherjee said. "The small, icy dwarf planets that lie beyond Pluto cannot be studied in detail from ground-based telescopes. By studying these icy worlds, we hope to learn more about the origins of the outer parts of the solar system. Their composition could be every different from the terrestrial planets and the gas giants like Jupiter."

Despite the technological wonders involved in the journey, pictures won't be viewable in real time. Pluto is so far away; transmitted pictures face a long journey through space to reach Earth. Traveling at the speed of light, NASA expects communication to take up to five hours.

Mukherjee said she expects the new frontier of exploration to shed light on the cosmos.

"We have never seen the surface of Pluto and its moon Charon in detail," she said. "We know so little about this dwarf planet that I am eager to learn the chemistry, the surface features and the moons orbiting it and how they formed."

So groundbreaking is the learning expectations, Mukherjee said astronomy textbooks would have to be rewritten after this mission.

"I will definitely incorporate all the new images of Pluto and the news results into my 'Space Science' class in fall. The 'Space Science' class is about our solar system. We are expanding our knowledge of the solar system so fast.

She said the temperature of Pluto could reach as low as -400, making life, as we know it on earth, impossible. But the mission does testify to the human spirit for adventure.

"The scientific community will take months to analyze the data," she said. "We want to explore the unknown, and that is what makes us so unique."

Riddle said he expects to learn more about Pluto's surface and atmosphere and how the planets formed.

"This is really the first new frontier we have seen since the 1980s," he said. We are talking about a mission of exploration, simply for exploration. Pluto is like a lost world waiting to be rediscovered, just like any number of explorations throughout human history, whether on earth or in outer space."

While the world waits for high-definition pictures, Riddle said he anticipates learning more about the universe.

"What I really want to learn about Pluto is what it can teach us about the rest of the universe," he said. "By studying Pluto, we could learn more about how the universe around us was formed, and that really fascinates me.

He said students might incorporate new data into planetarium shows. "We love to talk about recent scientific discoveries. It is likely that as pictures start to come back, we will be presenting them and explaining their significance," he said.

SRU Vincent Science Center Planetarium, which was remodeled in 2012, offers control electronics and an audio system including wireless microphones. The projector presents the relative position and brightness of thousands of stars and planets. Forty-nine, hi-back chairs, mounted in reclining positions, provide a great viewing angle.

You can follow along with the mission using the hashtag #PlutoFlyby or on Facebook.

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