July 12: Historic Pluto visit spotlighted at WSU Planetarium

By Linda Weiford, WSU News

plutoPULLMAN, WASH. – When the audience packs into Washington State University’s planetarium Sunday for a presentation on Pluto, amateur astronomer Jessica Jones will do more than narrate the wonders of this icy little ex-planet. She’ll also referee.

“It’s been about 50/50 with people who think Pluto should be reinstated as a planet and those who say it doesn’t qualify as a planet,” said Jones, speaking of her two previous “To Pluto and Beyond” presentations at the planetarium. “Either way, feelings tend to be strong on both sides.”

Of the two talks she will give on Sunday, “I suspect emotions will be running a little higher,” she said.

‘Wow factor’ revelations

That’s because just two days later, on July 14, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft will finally catch up to Pluto. In a journey that began more than nine years ago, it will have zoomed 3.6 billion miles from Earth to get the first close-up look at this hotly debated ice ball.

Amateur astronomer Jessica Jones, neutral on Pluto? (Photo by Linda Weiford, WSU News)

Among other things, it will snap detailed photographs of Pluto and analyze its atmosphere, temperatures and surface composition.

“We’re talking about raw, deep-space exploration. I think a ‘wow factor’ or two will be revealed,” said Jones.

In the meantime, as the spacecraft closes in on our solar system’s last frontier, scientific and public debate over Pluto’s planetary status is coming back into focus, she said.

“We know so little about Pluto but care about it in such a big way,” she said.

Believers, naysayers welcome

When New Horizons rocketed into space from Cape Canaveral in 2006, Pluto was the ninth and farthest planet from the Sun. Later that year, the International Astronomical Union voted to strip it of planethood. The decision rankled scientists, school children and many in between.

Artist concept of New Horizons approaching Pluto. (Photo courtesy of NASA)

“I’m sorry, but I thought a planet was one of the constants in life,” quipped satirist Stephen Colbert on his Comedy Central TV show.

Now that the New Horizons’ flyby visit has placed Pluto back in the spotlight, interest in the debate is being refueled. Jones will discuss this at the presentation. As for her planet-or-no-planet opinion, “I try to keep that to myself and present both sides of the debate,” she said.

During her hour-long talk, she’ll also address why the spacecraft’s visit to Pluto is significant, what long-held secrets might be revealed and why this celestial oddball has such a remarkable grip on the American public. She’ll also use Pluto’s planetary demotion to illustrate how our knowledge of the universe is made fluid with discoveries.

About the presentation

“New Horizons: To Pluto and Beyond” will be at 5 and 7 p.m. Sunday, July 12, at the WSU Planetarium, hosted by the Department of Physics and Astronomy, 231 Sloan Hall. (Note: It is NOT located in the campus observatory on the hill. See directions and map link below).

Tickets at the door are $5 in cash or check. Children 6 and under get in free.

Directions from Stadium Way and Main Street in Pullman: Turn onto Stadium, make an immediate left on Nevada, a quick left on Washington and turn right on Spokane Street. Look for the Electrical/Mechanical Engineering Building. (“Green” and “Yellow” labeled parking spots are legal for parking after hours.)

The pedestrian bridge is the most convenient entry; walk across the bridge, enter the building then turn right. Twenty paces later, turn left and head down the hall to Sloan 231.

See map at http://astro.wsu.edu/program/images/from_StadiumMain.gif.

For more information, go to the WSU Planetarium website at http://astro.wsu.edu/planetarium.html.


Jessica Jones, WSU Planetarium, jmarie1084@gmail.com
Linda Weiford, WSU News, 509-335-7209, linda.weiford@wsu.edu