News from Space: New Horizons Passes Neptune

new-horizons-neptuneIt certainly has been a momentous few weeks for space exploration! Between the final weeks of August and the month of September, we’ve seen the Curiosity rover reach Mount Sharp, the Rosetta spacecraft created the first full map of a comet’s, the completion of the Orion space module, and the MAVEN orbiter reach Martian orbit. And before the month is out, India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) will also arrive in orbit around the Red Planet.

Despite all these developments, that occurred (relatively) close to home, there was even more news to be had, coming all the way from the edge of the Solar System no less. At the tail end of August, NASA announced that the New Horizons space probe passed Neptune orbit and is on its way to Pluto. Launched back in 2006 for the purpose of studying the dwarf planet, the probe is expected to arrive on July 14th of next year.

new-horizons-neptune-8NASA says that the the craft passed the Neptunian orbit at 10:04 pm EDT on Monday August 25th, which coincided with the 25th anniversary of Voyager 2’s flyby of Neptune in 1989. But where Voyager came within 4,950 km (3,080 mi) of the gas giant, the New Horizons craft passed by at a distance of 3.96 billion km (2.45 billion mi). The spacecraft is now almost 4.42 billion km (2.75 billion mi) from Earth, and is the fastest man-made object ever sent into space.

Nevertheless, New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) was still able to capture images of Neptune and its giant moon Triton. As you can see from the image below, Neptune appears as the large white disc in the middle, while Triton is the small black dot passing in front and sitting slightly to the ride. NASA says that Triton may be very similar to Pluto and the information gathered by Voyager 2 may prove helpful in the coming encounter.

new_horizons_plutoRalph McNutt of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.

There is a lot of speculation over whether Pluto will look like Triton, and how well they’ll match up. That’s the great thing about first-time encounters like this – we don’t know exactly what we’ll see, but we know from decades of experience in first-time exploration of new planets that we will be very surprised.

The first mission in NASA’s New Frontiers program, the New Horizons mission was launched on January 19, 2006 atop an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida. It broke the record for the fastest man-made object on lift off with a speed of 58,536 km/h (36,373 mph). The 478 kg (1,054 lb) spacecraft was sent on a 9.5-year mission to fly by Pluto – a distance so far that radio signals from the nuclear-powered probe take four hours to reach Earth.

new-horizons-neptune-7Sent on a slingshot trajectory using the gravitational pull of Jupiter, which tacked on another 14,480 km/h (9,000 mph) to its speed, New Horizons will pass Pluto in July of next year at a distance of 13,000 km (8,000 mi). After this encounter, it will continue on out of the Solar System, during which it will be in the distant Kuiper belt studying one or more Kuiper belt objects (KBOs).

Though this will still not rival Voyager 1’s accomplishments, which left our Solar System last year, New Horizons promises to gather far more information on the Outer Solar System and what lies beyond. All of this will come in mighty handy when at last, humanity contemplates sending manned missions into deep space, either to Alpha Centauri or neighboring exoplanets.

Sources: gizmag.com, nasa.gov

News From Space: IAU Revises Stance on Naming Planets

alien-worldGood news everyone! According to the International Astronomic Union, the public can now participate in the naming of new exoplanets. What’s more, they can be popular names like kinds found in science fiction, assuming they are appropriate and the public is behind it. This represents a big change in terms of IAU policy, which previously reserved the right to give names to newly discovered bodies outside of our Solar System.

As recently as late March, 2013, the IAU’s official word on naming exoplanets was, “the IAU sees no need and has no plan to assign names to these objects at the present stage of our knowledge.” Their rationale was since there is seemingly going to be so many exoplanets, it will be difficult to name them all.

IAU_exosBut then, on March 24th, the IAU added on their website:

…the IAU greatly appreciates and wishes to acknowledge the increasing interest from the general public in being more closely involved in the discovery and understanding of our Universe. As a result in 2013 the IAU Commission 53 Extrasolar Planets and other IAU members will be consulted on the topic of having popular names for exoplanets, and the results will be made public on the IAU website.

This new decision follows from an event earlier this year where the SETI Institute and the space company Uwingu organized their own campaigns for creating popular names of objects in space. Both events were wildly popular with the general public, but generated some controversy. For one, the IAU issued a statement regarding the contests saying that while they welcomed the public’s interest, the IAU has the last word.

Pluto-System_720-580x344For example, the SETI institute’s contest, “Space Rocks”, was intended to name two newly discovered moons around Pluto. Though the name “Vulcan” was the top contender for one of them, and even got a nod from William Shatner, the IAU overruled their decision and went with the name “Styx” instead. Additionally, the IAU took issue with the “selling” of names, referring to the fact that Uwingu charged a fee to take part in their contest.

However, given public interest in the process and the fact that other bodies might begin privatizing the process, the IAU has altered its position on these matters and opened up the naming process to the public. The new rules, which were passed this summer, now allow individuals to suggest names of exoplanets and planetary satellites (moons) via email to the IAU.

gliese-581.jpgThose looking to make a contribution to naming newly discovered planets and moons are asked to abide by the following criteria:

  1. Prior to any public naming initiative the IAU should be contacted from the start by Letter of Intent sent to the IAU General Secretary
  2. The process should be submitted in the form of a proposal to the IAU by an organization
  3. The organization should list its legal or official representatives and its goals, and explain the reasons for initiating the process for naming a particular object or set of objects
  4. The process cannot request nor make reference to any revenues, for whatever purpose
  5. The process must guarantee a wide international participation
  6. The public names proposed (whether by individuals or in a naming campaign) should follow the naming rules and restrictions adopted for Minor Bodies of the Solar System, by the IAU and by the Minor Planet Center.

Among other rules cited in their new policy are that proposed names should be 16 characters or less in length, pronounceable in as many languages as possible, non-offensive in any language or culture, and that names of individuals, places or events principally known for political or military activities are unsuitable. Also, the names must have the formal agreement of the discoverers.

KeplerThis about face has its share of supporters and critics alike. Whereas people who support it generally see it as a sign that we are entering into an era of open and democratic space exploration. the critics tend to stress the contradictions and ambiguities in the new policy. Whereas the IAU previously claimed it had the final word on the naming process, their new stance appears to indicate that this is no longer the case.

In addition, companies like Uwingu are now free to participate in the naming of planetary bodies, which means that their contest to name Pluto’s moon “Vulcan” would now be legitimate under the new framework. Many people, such as astronomer and Uwingu CEO Alan Stern, are wondering if the new rules will apply retroactively since they were previously forbidden from having any input.

kepler22b.jpgAs for me, this puts me in mind of my own attempts to name real or fictitious exoplanets. Sadly, since it this was done for the sake of writing fiction, they would have no legal standing, but the process was still fun and got me thinking… If we are to begin exploring and colonizing planets outside of our Solar System, how will we go about naming them?

Now it seems there is a process in place for just such a thing, one which will assign actual names instead of bland designations. And it appears that this process will be a trade off between scientific organizations and public input, either through campaigns or contests. And I imagine once we start breaking ground on new worlds, settlers and shareholders will have a thing or two to say as well!

Planet Microsoft… Planet Starbucks… Planet Walmart… I shudder to think!

Sources: universetoday.com, uwingu.com. phl.upr.edu

Pluto’s New Moon to be Named Vulcan

pluto1For roughly a month now, the SETI Institute (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) has been holding an online poll – appropriately named Pluto Rocks! – to help them name Pluto’s smallest moons, officially designated P4 and P5. Discovered in 2011 and 2012 respectively, an online poll ran up until the end of February, at which point researcher and co-discoverer Mark Showalter took the names before the International Astronomical Union (IAU) to finalization.

Although there were several choices for for Pluto’s fourth and fifth moon, it was P4 that became the focus of a great deal of attention. Of all the names for this space rock, two top contenders came out on top: Vulcan and Cerberus. Out of a whopping 450,324 people who took part in the poll overall, 174,062 voted for Vulcan, effectively putting it in the top spot. This was perhaps due to a little Twitter intervention by Mr. William Shatner.

Pluto_moon_orbitsWhen the contest began back, it seemed that two camps emerged as the forerunners for naming the rock. On the one hand, there were the Trekkies who seemed determined to name P4 after famed-character Spock’s homeworld. On the other, there those who belong to IAU camp, who favored the classical Greek name of the beast that guarded the entrance to the underworld.

After just a few days in, William Shatner, Mr. James T. Kirk himself, proposed the name Vulcan, and not just because of the connection to his show. In Roman mythology, Pluto (aka Hades in the Greek pantheon) was the God of the underworld and Vulcan was one of his sons. Cerberus might have been more appropriate since this beast was Pluto’s/Hades companion, but the connection still works, and provides a nice little tie-in to one of the most popular science fiction shows of all time.

Pluto-and-VulcanFans and Trekkies worldwide rallied, and as of Feb. 25th, Vulcan had a comfortable lead over Cerberus and Styx, which were vying for the 2nd place position. SETI has now advised that people be patient, as it will take another months or two for the names of the two moons to be finalized and selected. However, barring any major objections or upheavals, I think it’s fair to say that P4 and P5 will henceforth be named Vulcan and Kerberos.

And I have to say, this is fascinating news in more ways than just one. Not only does it demonstrate that our collective knowledge of the outer Solar System is growing. It also demonstrates how henceforth, astronomical studies and cataloging may become a much more democratic affair. Once considered the province of academics and scholars, space exploration may truly be an open field in the future, subject to mass participation.

Oh, and congrats to Mr. Shatner for his enduring influence, to Mr. Nimoy for the shout-out, and to Trekkies the world over for showing what a committed fandom made up of millions of geeks can do! And may all the people who bullied you for your interests and keen intellectual skills consider what a force you’ve become and cower in fear!