BY AMY SAYLE
Nothing existed for me last week except Pluto.
I obsessively checked the website for the New Horizons mission to Pluto, watched Pluto press conferences, read Pluto news releases, attended talks on Pluto, devoured Pluto books, hosted Morehead’s guest speaker on Pluto, gave Pluto-themed planetarium shows, and went on television to talk about Pluto.
Whenever I visited a news website, I got annoyed at all the non-Pluto information that was in the way. Iranian nuclear deal? Another candidate for President? Never mind all that. GIVE ME MORE PLUTO PICTURES.
One of those pictures, the Pluto-has-a-heart image taken by the New Horizons spacecraft on July 13, is my new all-time favorite picture of an object in our solar system. (Yes, Saturn, I have demoted you and your fabulous rings.)
Image Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute
But this mission is about more than just getting to see – for the first time! – what Pluto actually looks like. Among other things, we learned that Pluto has icy mountains as tall as the Rockies, that its nitrogen-rich atmosphere extends as far as 1,000 miles above the surface, and that its largest moon Charon has a canyon way deeper than the Grand Canyon.
Thanks to the New Horizons Long Range Reconnaissance Imager’s precise measurement of its diameter (1,473 miles, give or take just a few), we also learned that former-planet Pluto is the largest known object in the solar system beyond the orbit of Neptune. (So take that, Eris.)
Alas, the Pluto news is slowing down as New Horizons speeds away from its July 14th flyby of the Pluto system and heads deeper into the Kuiper Belt. I am experiencing Post-Pluto Depression.
Perhaps you suffer from Post-Pluto Depression, too? Here are three treatment options:
1) Denial. Simply continue thinking about Pluto. For example, you could:
- Calculate Pluto time each day. Curious what sunlight looks like on a world that’s 3 billion miles from the Sun? NASA has a website that tells you the next time of day (actually, twilight) to go outside to experience the same level of sunlight on Earth as on Pluto at noon.
- Read Pluto-related books. I highly recommend both books I read last week: Mike Brown’s How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming, and Neil deGrasse Tyson’s The Pluto Files: The Rise and Fall of America’s Favorite Planet.
- Attend Morehead’s “Science 360: Peek at Pluto” program. It’s held in the Science Stage six times a week this summer.
2) Anticipation. Remember that the New Horizons mission is not over:
- Get ready for more data. To date, the spacecraft has sent only a small fraction of the data collected by its science instruments during the Pluto flyby. New Horizons will continue sending data, including pictures, back to Earth for more than a year.
- Get excited over the plan for New Horizons to visit one of Pluto’s neighbors – another object in the Kuiper Belt.
3) Distraction. Focus on other exciting astronomy events coming up:
- Mid-August features the peak of the annual Perseid meteor shower. If the weather permits, Morehead will host a skywatching session at Jordan Lake on Wednesday, August 12, 2015, from 9 to 11 p.m. We’ll expect to see some meteors, and we’ll have telescopes so you can look at Saturn and its rings (which really are fabulous).
- In September, there’s a total lunar eclipse. Weather permitting, we’ll have a skywatching session at the Morehead Planetarium sundial from 9 to 11 p.m. on Sunday, September 27, 2015. Regardless of whether the weather cooperates for eclipse viewing, you can join us that same day for rain-or-shine live planetarium programs that will include information about the eclipse.
But if the only thing that can relieve your Post-Pluto Depression is a NASA mission to another world, then keep an eye out for news on the Juno mission, which reaches Jupiter in 2016.