Pluto New Horizons Program Update

New Horizons mission to Pluto talk
The New Horizons Mission to Pluto

Last week I gave my Pluto – New Horizons presentation to a joint meeting of the Von Braun Astronomical Society and the Huntsville Alabama L5 chapter of the National Space Society. The event was held at the Von Braun Planetarium in Monte Sano State Park, Huntsville AL. In doing this particular presentation I was wearing my NASA JPL Solar System Ambassador hat. I have served as a Solar System Ambassador for a number of years and in that guise give talks about planetary science and the various NASA JPL robotic missions to the planets. In recent years the focus of my space-related outreach activities has been on the subjects of space commercialization and space development. For example, last November I gave a presentation on newSpace at the Gateway to Space conference in St. Louis while in October I served as a panelist for a space exploration symposium held at the Museum of Science and Industry. The subject of that panel was the economics of deep space exploration and was moderated by former NASA astronaut and ATK Flight Systems Group Vice President Charlie Precourt. And, of course, I speak frequently on the subject of digital art and related topics. You can see a list of these presentations on my art lectures and presentations page.

For the most part my presentations are relatively static due to the nature of their subject matter. The changes I do make are primarily to improve the quality of the content and flow of the presentation. My Pluto talk is quite another matter. The challenge I face going forward is that new data and images are going to be regularly released from now until October 2016. This means that the backstory I tell, which serves as a foundation for the science and spacecraft, is going to be continually cut. In fact I can foresee a time when all discussion of the history of planetary science and details about the New Horizons spacecraft will be removed from my presentation in order to make room for the newest images and science results. For my talk at the Von Braun Planetarium I removed about 15 percent of the backstory slides in order to add slides that addressed the newest images and data returned from the New Horizons encounter with Pluto. And the next time I give this talk – at Maker Faire Milwaukee – I'm going to have to cut more background in order to accommodate the new data being released in September.

In order to add some uniqueness to my presentation's visuals, I created several custom 3D global views of both Pluto and Charon. As sources I used the global cylindrical projection maps of Pluto and Charon released by Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. I slightly enhanced the contrast and sharpness of the source images, colorized the images, and smoothed out individual image frame borders. I then did something I haven't done in years – I fired up Bryce and used it to render my globes of Pluto and Charon. I used Bryce because it was the fastest and easiest way to produce simple 3D screen-sized renders.

3D render of Tombaugh Regio, Pluto
3D render of Tombaugh Regio, Pluto (cropped here)

Using custom views turned out to be particularly useful in, for example, highlighting the differences between the eastern and western lobes of Tombaugh Regio. The western lobe of Tombaugh Regio contains Sputnik Planum, which appears to be a reservoir of ices, principally nitrogen (N2), methane(CH4), and carbon monoxide(CO). Sputnik Planum appears to be the source of the ices that thinly veil the eastern lobe of Tombaugh Regio.

Global Map of Pluto
Global Map of Pluto

I also assembled my own annotated map of Pluto that includes feature names and a latitude/longitude grid. I find such maps quite useful in helping the audience understand where features are not just on Pluto/Charon but also in relationship to one another.

In closing, while our knowledge of Pluto and Charon is a work in progress being continually reshaped by the arrival of new data and images, so too is my Pluto talk a work in progress.

Reference Links

Upcoming Pluto Presentations

For Plutophiles(1), I am scheduled to give my Pluto talk two times in September. First up is an abbreviated version for a Rotary Club meeting. Next I will be giving the full talk at Maker Faire Milwaukee held the weekend of Sept. 25-26. In addition, I will also be teaching my class Creating Digital Spirographs and Harmonographs with Processing.

Note 1: According to Wordspy, a plutophile is "a person who likes the dwarf planet Pluto, particularly one who objects to Pluto's status as a dwarf planet". While the first half of this definition applies to me, the second half does not. I am one of those folks who supported the IAU's (International Astronomical Union) decision to reclassify Pluto.

| Return to the Blog Index | This entry was posted on Monday, August 31st, 2015 at 2:39 pm and is filed under Astronomy, Presentations.