The next stage of space exploration- Pluto

“Finding Earth-size planets gets us asking that question that we’ve all asked, ‘if there are other planets like ours out there, is there life there?’”

An image of Pluto captured by the New Horizons spacecraft in 2015 (photo credit: NASA)
An image of Pluto captured by the New Horizons spacecraft in 2015
(photo credit: NASA)
Looking up at the cosmos has inspired many over the millennia to ask more than simply what is out there. As the field of space exploration has reached new heights this past year – not only in Israel but the world over – a small, often forgotten planet holds new promise for scientists. In honor of the 90th anniversary since Pluto’s discovery, The Jerusalem Report went back to where it all began.
During a visit to the Lowell Observatory, in Flagstaff, Arizona, the Report spoke to Dr. Kevin Schindler, a prominent astronomer who authored books about the young planet and a self-described Pluto fan. With last year’s launch and crash of Israel’s Beresheet on the Moon’s surface, along with various other joint space-research projects between US and Israeli science institutions, the unknown suddenly seems closer than ever before.
When asked what he thinks of Israeli science exploration, Schindler responds:
“I’m excited that Israel is doing research like that. To me, the more the merrier. One country shouldn’t hold all the cards. I love US space exploration endeavors, but when we do things internationally and collaborate, you can do more. So, I’m excited to see Israeli science answer in that way.”
Although located billions of miles away at the very end of our solar system, Pluto is still an important part of understanding how our planetary system works. One Pluto year is some 248 years long. It has five moons – Charon, Styx, Nix, Kerberos and Hydra – and is about one-sixth the size of Earth, smaller than even our own Moon. As of the writing of this article, it is currently positioned in orbit some 5.3 billion km. (3.2 b. miles) away from Earth.
“Lowell Observatory was founded in 1894, which is 18 years before Arizona was a state. By Western standards, 125 years ago is pretty old. Our founder decided to study Mars and the possibility of intelligent life out there, and he wrote some books and really compelling ideas. Percival Lowell’s ideas were wrong, but they’re still noteworthy,” explains Schindler.
For years, Lowell used inter-planetary maps to plot where he thought Pluto should be located. He noticed startling discrepancies in Neptune’s orbit as it went around the Sun, postulating that in fact, another planetary object could exist in its midst. He set out to find Pluto, but was unsuccessful. Several years later, a young farmer from Kansas, Clyde Tombaugh, proposed that he could assist in the efforts to find the planet by using a telescope he had constructed out of spare tractor parts.
On February 18, 1930, Tombaugh, who began a career at the observatory, located the object, after Lowell’s death. Schindler noted that although Tombaugh lacked formal education and was an amateur self-taught astronomer, he impressed many with his discovery. After conducting a worldwide quest for the planet’s name, an 11-year-old British schoolgirl, Venetia Burney proposed it be named Pluto, after the Roman god of the Underworld – and the rest is history.
In addition to the discovery of Pluto, the observatory is also known for its impressive list of astronomers and researchers, among them, Vesto Slipher, who first detected the expansion of the universe, noting galaxies undergo shifts in radiation (also known as redshift) that lead to an increase of their wavelength, thereby elongating the Universe. “It taught us that space is much larger and older than we originally thought,” says Schindler. The facility employs around 110 people, houses a hi-tech telescope, the Discovery Channel Telescope, in addition to the already existing six that are open to the public for use. Charon, Pluto’s largest moon, was also discovered in Flagstaff by researchers at the United States Naval Observatory. The organization remains a nonprofit and gets funding from a variety of sources, including grants, corporations, foundations and private donors. The city of Flagstaff has a “dark sky” policy, calling to limit light pollution and only permitting the use of outdoor sodium lights. Objects appear much clearer and brighter in the night sky, enriching the experience of many who look to the stars.
In 2006, Pluto was downgraded from a planet to a dwarf planet, causing uproar in the scientific community. This, says Schindler, shows how science is done. “Science is like a progress report, the more you learn, the more you modify your interpretation. Since then, we’ve learned a lot more about Pluto – it’s a lot smaller than we originally thought. But Pluto also shows how science doesn’t work. Scientists don’t sit in a room and vote on what to call something,” Schindler laughs. “Especially since the New Horizons [spacecraft] went out, Pluto is more planet-like than anything. It’s got an atmosphere, moons, geological activity going on.”
In 2015, New Horizons provided the first clear images of Pluto’s surface, showing that the small planet has moons, craters and ice-capped mountain peaks.
“On the surface there are very few craters, which means that the surface is fairly young,” Schindler said.
There is ice on Pluto, which is most likely methane gas in solid form. Scientists have even discovered the planet has some type of atmosphere.
“Pluto’s elongated orbit shows that it’s now moving away from the Sun and getting colder. For a period of time, it gets closer to the Sun and warms up. The icy material sublimates and creates an atmosphere. Then as it moves away from the sun, the atmosphere gets colder and kind of evaporates. It’s still there – in a gaseous state above the planet – it just crystallizes and later falls as snow. Certainly, no other planet has that, it’s quite unique,” he notes.
But, the images from New Horizons expanded our knowledge in more ways than one, he quips.
“I think that those images turned this little dot into a world. You see the older images of Pluto, where it’s just a dot, and then you compare it to the New Horizons images where it has an entire shape, with detail. You say to yourself, ‘holy cow! This is a real place.’ It’s not just some theoretical thing out there.”
As to further scientific research that awaits the small planet, so far, only a single spacecraft has conducted a flyby and captured images of its surface. The next step would be to send a rover to Pluto to collect rock samples. This project has already begun, with the Southwest Research Institute approving funding to develop an orbiting mission of this kind last October.
“With Pluto, [all this research] is only the tip of the iceberg. Humans can’t survive to go to Mars, so Pluto is out of the question for now. It’d be impossible. But to send an orbiter, is really something,” he says.
The observatory has researchers who also study objects past Neptune, including in the Kuiper Belt, and also in the Oort Cloud. The goal, Schindler says, is to find planets similar to our own.
“Finding Earth-size planets gets us asking that question that we’ve all asked, ‘if there are other planets like ours out there, is there life there?’”
While the search continues, the public can still look to the sky for answers. “I think in terms of space, it’s something that we all can embrace and get excited about. Just looking up for a moment really encourages us to think about our place in the Universe,” he added.
Gazing at the stars can also be a personal uplifting experience, Schindler expounded. “If you think about it, you’re seeing these images live, or just a few minutes old. When you’re looking through an eyepiece, it’s you just you and the object – there’s nothing else in between.”
On one level, we’re all just a speck in this giant Universe, but that is no reason to feel overwhelmed and inconsequential by the vastness all around us, he says.
“You don’t want to get depressed about it, as if we’re insignificant, but on the other hand, we’re just a cosmic dust ball. For whatever reason, we’re here. I don’t know if there is a reason, but we are here. So learning a little bit about it is pretty exciting.”