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Pluto New Horizons Program Update

Monday, August 31st, 2015

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‚Äôs 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.

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Pluto and the NASA New Horizons Mission

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2015

Pluto New Horizons Pluto-Palooza talk
Pluto New Horizons Pluto-Palooza talk

One thing consuming my time recently has been the NASA New Horizons mission to Pluto and the spacecraft’s passage through the Plutonian system on Tuesday July 14. This mission reawakened a somewhat dormant interest in planetary science. Once upon a time the majority of the talks I gave at area libraries and at science fiction conventions dealt with planetary science, particularly Mars. Over the years as passions waxed and wanned my areas of focus (as least as far as public speaking was concerned) shifted to talks about algorithmic art, astronomical art, generative art, social media, space commercialization, space development, and more recently the Processing programming language.

New Horizons is a historic mission. We’ve had robotic missions to planets, moons, comets, and asteroids. We’ve even had the first mission to a dwarf planet – that being the Dawn mission to Ceres. One thing we’ve never had is a mission to a Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) because that is what Pluto is properly categorized as. In fact, this is one point that I emphasize with my audience – the real value of the New Horizons mission to Pluto is not about visiting the one unvisited planet but about being the first mission to this relatively new category of solar system object. The opportunity to study these ancient icy dwarfs of the solar system close-up is and will continue to be exceedingly rare.

One thing that I have found somewhat annoying has been a number of comments on social media expressing disappointment at the quality of images returned to Earth by New Horizons and that there are so few of them. It’s unfortunate that so many people do not understand that the New Horizons spacecraft, by design, can not simultaneously collect data and send data back to Earth. During the close encounter phase (approach, encounter, and departure phases) the spacecraft’s job has been to collect data – and rightly so. In the days after the closest approach to Pluto, the images that were being released were all taken from the day before the close encounter when the spacecraft was still over half a million kilometers from Pluto! Recall that on the 14th New Horizons actually flew past Pluto as a distance of a mere 12,500 kilometers. For reference, the geostationary satellites in orbit above the Earth are just shy of 36,000 kilometers over our heads.

I gave my Pluto – New Horizons presentation for the first time on Sunday July 19 at the Schaumburg Library for the meeting of the Chicago Society for Space Studies. I was slightly out of sorts because the laptop I use for my presentations… well that morning when I turned it on I couldn’t get past the BIOS startup screen. Fortunately I had made a backup of my presentation on a thumb drive. I hadn’t added much after making that copy so the presentation was essentially complete. I pulled out my son’s 4+ year old discarded laptop (too many blue screens of death according to him) and used that to do my presentation. (Yes I actually compartmentalize my computing life so that different computers are used for specific functions. And no, I have not yet begun to troubleshoot what’s wrong with my "presentations " computer.)

As a consequence of questions from the audience and to tighten up the story line, I deleted a number of slides from the talk while adding a few new ones. Tightening up also helped me to cut the length of my talk because as a speaker I encourage the audience to ask questions as my presentation progresses. I gave this new version of the talk at the Roden Branch of the Chicago Public Library last night. The changes I made both improved the flow and allowed me to finish right on time – even with questions from the audience. Not giving much away, the graphic below shows the 70 slides in the Pluto New Horizons talk that I gave last night.

Pluto New Horizons Pluto-Palooza talk
Slides for my Pluto New Horizons Pluto-Palooza lecture

The next presentation I’ll be giving will be at Musecon, a convention for artists, musicians, inventors, gadgeteers, makers, tinkerers, and other creative folks. My talk isn’t about Pluto though. What I’ll be doing is teaching a class on creating digital spirographs and harmonographs using the Processing programming language.

Creating Digital Spirographs and Harmonographs With Processing
Creating Digital Spirographs and Harmonographs With Processing presentation

Musecon is August 7,8.9 and is being held at Westin Chicago Northwest in Itasca, Illinois. Musecon’s Guest of Honor is Brother Guy Consolmango, President of the Vatican Observatory Foundation and accomplished author. It’s been my honor to have been on a few panels with Brother Guy in the past. As I recall, one dealt with asteroids, another with Mars, and the third with planetary science missions in general. These panels were all at science fiction conventions. That’s right, there is much more to science fiction conventions than just science fiction.

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Pluto, New Horizons Pluto-Palooza: Art and Talk

Saturday, June 13th, 2015

Art version of the dwarf planet Pluto and its moon Charon
Artistic representation of the dwarf planet Pluto and its moon Charon

Next month I’ll be doing some talks on the dwarf planet Pluto, its moons, and the NASA New Horizons mission which will make its closest approach to Pluto on Tuesday, July 14 at 11:49:57 UTC. At that time it will pass Pluto at a distance of some 12,500 kilometers. In fact, New Horizons became the mission of closest approach to Pluto on December 2, 2011 – some three and a half years ago. The previous record holder was Voyager I, which got to within 1.58 billion kilometers of Pluto.

As a part of working on my presentation, I decided to create some original artwork. The result is the art used to illustrate this story. Titled Pluto and Charon, I tried to present a reasonably accurate depiction of the pair in terms of relative size in the artwork with respect to Charon’s orbital distance from Pluto. I took some small latitude with the overall coloring and albedos but as to surface features, well at this point that is anybody’s guess.

New Horizons Lorri Image of Pluto Taken June 11, 2015
New Horizons Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (Lorri) Image of Pluto Taken May 28, 2015

With respect to the surface features of Pluto, the image above is probably the best image to date of the dwarf planet. It was taken by the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (Lorri) on May 28, 2015 when New Horizons was about 56 million kilometers from Pluto.

My artist’s print version of Pluto and Charon is 18 by 14 inches. By comparison, the version shown here would be about 2.8 by 1.9 inches if printed. I do plan on adding this digital painting to my web site but I’m not sure when exactly that will be as I have a number of other projects consuming my time. However, I have made this artwork available for purchase on Redbubble both as a print and as product artwork:

Dwarf Planet Pluto and its moon Charon on Redbubble

As to my Pluto/New Horizons presentation, I am currently slated to give my talk at the following venues:

When: Sunday, July 19, 2015 at 1:00pm
Where: Schaumburg Township District Library Adult Classroom
for the meeting of the Chicago Society for Space Studies
Address:130 South Roselle Road, Schaumburg, IL 60193
When: Tuesday, July 21, 2015 at 6:30 pm
Where: Roden Branch, Chicago Public Library
Address: 6083 N. Northwest Highway, Chicago, IL 60631

I will also be appearing in Streator IL on July 5th with time and venue to be determined. The city is including Pluto in its Fourth of July celebration as Streator is the birthplace of Clyde Tombaugh, the astronomer at Lowell Observatory who discovered Pluto in 1930. I am fortunate in that I had the opportunity to attend a lecture about Pluto by Mr. Tombaugh and to briefly meet him afterwards. Mr. Tombaugh passed away in 1997.

New Horizons References

The following New Horizons articles contain additional information about the Lorri image of Pluto used in this story:

The main web site for the mission is the New Horizons web site at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.

In closing I offer the following quotation:

Most great discoveries in science are preceded by intuitions and followed by simple or crude methods, procedures, and use of inferior equipment. Often a succession of attempts take place in a progressive sequence, just barely missing the discovery. This was especially so in the case of the discovery of the ninth planet, Pluto.

Clyde Tombaugh in Out of the Darkness: The Planet Pluto

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From Capricon to Floral Photography

Tuesday, February 14th, 2012

The Flyers of Fomalhaut b Digital Art Painting
The Flyers of Fomalhaut b Digital Painting

Part 1: The Capricon Science Fiction Convention

This year Capricon was a short affair for me. While the con ran Thursday thru Sunday, I only attended Friday and Saturday and then only until 6:30pm as I had made plans to attend the opening of a photo exhibition at the Prairie Arts Center in Schaumburg. And because I was not returning on Sunday I did not participate in the art show. On Saturday I did make sure to go through the art show and was happy to see work exhibited by a couple of my friends. What I found disturbing though was the fairly large number of empty display bays in the show. In my experience the Capricon Art Show generally has little, if any, unused space. Unfortunately I had to leave before the start of the art auction so have no idea how well that went.

With respect to programming, my only job Friday was as a panelist on Pluto Is Still a Planet in Illinois with Bill Higgins (Fermilab physicist) moderating and copanelists Brother Guy Consolmagno (Vatican Observatory) and Steven Silver (Capricon Fan Guest of Honor). This was a really good panel given that Brother Guy was a part of the IAU meeting at which the Pluto vote was made and Steven was a friend of Clyde Tombaugh, the man who discovered Pluto. If you were at Capricon and missed this panel – it was definitely your loss.

I arrived back at the con Saturday morning shortly before I was scheduled to give my presentation The Art of the Exploration of Space. I especially liked that I had 75 minutes to speak as this allowed me to go at a leisurely pace and engage in conversation with the audience as I went along. This was immediately followed by my moderating a panel at the opposite end of the convention on Goodbye, Space Shuttle. My copanelists were Henry Spencer, Chris Gerrib, and Kent Nebergall. Kent had the misfortune of being in the audience of my space art presentation whereupon I drafted him for the Space Shuttle panel as I knew that he would have valuable insights to contribute.

I next attended The Coming War on General Purpose Computation presentation by Cory Doctorow, the author guest of honor. It was a fascinating presentation. While I agreed with Doctorow on SOPA and other aspects of attempts to stamp out the theft of intellectual property, I came away dissatisfied that he offered no remedy for the authors, artists, and musicians who are having their work stolen. I was also somewhat surprised by his stance towards Facebook in that he seemed to believe that people should not be given the choice of sharing their information on social networks. I viewed this as being inconsistent with what I would characterize as a free and open internet perspective.

The last panel I attended was the most boring panel I have ever attended at any science fiction convention. Now with a title like Civil Disobedience: Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party Movement you would expect there to be an invigorating debate between the panelists and between the panelists and the audience. However, this panel was run by the brown shirts. No audience participation was allowed. There was a short period at the end where 5 people were identified and allowed to ask one question each with no follow up or commentary by the questioners permitted. In short, this panel was a total waste of time for the audience.

In summary, I’d say that the best things about Capricon were:

  • The accidental meetings
  • The conversations in the halls
  • The food in the green room
  • Prowling the Dealers Room
  • Checking out the art show
  • How well my The Art of the Exploration of Space presentation went and the ensuing conversations
  • Being on the Pluto panel with Brother Guy Consolmagno, Bill, and Steven
  • Friday lunch in the Green Room with Brother Guy, Bill Higgins, and Henry Spencer
  • Drafting Kent Nebergall to serve on the Space Shuttle panel.

Only one more year until Capricon 33!

Part 2: The Photography Exhibition at the Prairie Art Center, Schaumburg IL

Departing Capricon, I swung by home to grab a bite to eat and then headed over to the Prairie Art Center to take in a photography exhibition that was opening that night in the Herb Aigner Gallery. Titled Flowers in Our Soul, the show is devoted to artistic photographs of flowers and consists of 27 separate works. The photographers that I identified as having work on display in the show are Maria Aiello, Mary Angelini, Debbie Beller, Cindy Brumm, Susan Couch, Randee Lawrence, and Karie Strangeway. I had the opportunity to speak with several of them about their work. I was also curious to learn whether they printed their own work or used an outside service. If you would like to see the show, it runs through the end of February. See Prairie Center for the Arts, Schaumburg IL.

The Illustration

To illustrate this post I decided to use a piece of science fiction art that I just added to my web site. Titled The Flyers of Fomalhaut b, it is an imagining of what the life of exoplanet Fomalhaut b is like (note: not only is there no evidence of life on this planet, there is some question as to whether or not the planet even exists). Fomalhaut b appears to be a Jupiter-like planet that is about three times more massive than Jupiter and which orbits the star Fomalhaut once every 872 years. By comparison Pluto takes 248 years to complete an orbit of the Sun.

For more about this digital painting, see The Flyers of Fomalhaut b.

Until next time, Ad Astra, Jim

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