Celebrating the Hubble, Pluto
Published 10:32 pm, Thursday, June 11, 2015
(The following is an open letter to Greater New Milford-area residents from the volunteers at the McCarthy Observatory on the campus of New Milford High School.)
Dear Friends of the McCarthy Observatory,
We had a wonderful celebration of the Hubble Telescope’s 25th birthday in space at our monthly star party in May, complete with a birthday cake befitting the occasion.
The miniature Hubble telescope on the cake was assembled from beautifully detailed parts printed on the 3D printer in the New Milford High School STEM laboratory.
The real Hubble is now into its next productive years of great science. … With all of the enhancements and repairs done in the very last service mission in 2009, it is now really only 6 years old.
It possibly has five to 10 more years of great discoveries ahead.
On to Pluto. ... The drumbeat in the astronomy community about the approach of the New Horizons vehicle to Pluto is the loudest we have heard in many a year.
With just weeks to go, there truly is immense excitement. How come?
We have missions going in lots of places in the solar system. Why is this adventure so special around the world?
There are great reasons.
Just four years after Robert Goddard successfully launched the first liquid fuel rocket, a young astronomer named Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Ariz., using a very tedious method of rapidly blinking between photographic plates to try and find movement of an object in a dense star field.
This "blink comparator" device is still on display at the Lowell Observatory, and several of the McCarthy Observatory volunteers have had the pleasure of actually using it and seeing the extremely small movement that Tombaugh saw.
It is a stunning experience. Tombaugh sat at the device and compared plates for almost a year before his Eureka moment.
Now, only 85 years after the amazing discovery, a very sophisticated vehicle bristling with a unique and very powerful instrument package is poised to actually fly by that speck on a photographic plate.
New Horizons was launched Jan. 19, 2006 on a rocket that would greatly please Goddard.
Eighty-five years from discovery to a close flyby by a vehicle that is then heading further out to study what is beyond.
This writer knows a lot of people who were alive when Pluto was discovered, and they are seeing it now being explored in their lifetimes.
Pluto is so far away from the sun it has traveled only a third of the way around the sun during those folks’ lifetimes.
In a very real sense, the mission to discover the secrets of Pluto and its moons pays tribute to how far we have come in space exploration, in the blink of an eye since the days of Goddard and Tombaugh.
Much of the Pluto buzz recently came from the first major science discovery of the mission — measuring the chaotic movement and the orbits of Pluto’s moons, as they are affected by gravity from the Pluto/Charon system.
Many other surprises, and much new science, will be seen in the months to come, but data delivery to earth will be slowed down by the immensity of the data files being collected.
It will take well more than a year to transmit all the science results back to earth. Such is life in deep space exploration.
By the way, all of the McCarthy volunteers love Pluto. It may have been made a dwarf planet, but it has never been in our doghouse.