Tuesday, January 10, 2017

On Beyond Pluto! Mission to Pluto: The First Visit to an Ice Dwarf and the Kuiper Belt by Mary Kay Carson

"It may be that the dwarf planets are not only the most common kind of planet in the solar system; they may be the most common abode for life in the solar system."

Kuiper Belt Objects like Pluto also hold clues to how our solar system came to be and why it looks the way it does. KBOs are like fossils--bits of ancient history. "There a real record of the early history of the solar system out there in cold storage," said New Horizons scientist John Spencer.

New Horizons was built to go farther than Pluto, billions of miles further. Said Spencer, "This is the one chance in my lifetime to get a spacecraft out there and look up close at one of these Kuiper belt objects."

There were myriad moans of anguish, many from school children, back in 2006 when Pluto was demoted from ninth planet to dwarf planet. But the one-time planet has become the Comeback Kid of the solar system in the subsequent years, In fact, even before Pluto's reclassification, in 2001 director Alan Stern got the go-ahead for his team to design a mission called New Horizons to make a photographic fly-by of Pluto and outward to reveal the mysteries of the Kuiper Belt Objects. On July 15, 2015, this unusual spacecraft was launched and threaded the needle of its trajectory to photograph the former ninth planet up close and personal, and it still sails outward into the outer reaches of our solar system.

And what a comeback this was! This mission has helped revealed much about the beloved little has-been planet, first discovered by farmboy Clyde Tombaugh with his homemade telescope. We now know that Pluto is an icy dwarf, possessed of icy mountains, glaciers, and perhaps frozen oceans and maybe even carbon-based life forms. We now know Pluto has five moons--Charon, Hydra, Kerberos, Nix, and Styx, and some of its features photographed on that flyby have been mapped and named. We also now know that Pluto, unlike Mercury or our own moon, is strangely geologically active and has an atmosphere that extends 1000 miles above its surface. Pretty cool stuff for a demoted icy dwarf!

"This may cause us to rethink what powers geological activity can have on many other icy worlds," say John Spencer.

"Finding out that Pluto is geologically active after 4.5 billion years--there's not big enough typeface to write that [headline] in," said scientist Alan Stern. "It's unbelievable."

Thanks to this unusual spacecraft, appropriately launched with some of Clyde Tombaugh's ashes, this craft continues to sail on beyond Pluto to help reveal the mysteries of the Kuiper Belt and its space bodies, those keepers of the history of our solar system. Young men and woman at its inception, the builders of New Horizons may someday be delaying retirement, still excited by the discoveries yet to come from their historic mission.

Mary Kay Carson's Mission to Pluto: The First Visit to an Ice Dwarf and the Kuiper Belt (Scientists in the Field Series) (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016) is the latest in the noted Scientists in the Field series, but unlike many of the earlier entries, these scientists don't go outside into "the field" to study sharks, dolphins, and feathered raptors, or even down into the depths of a cave. Their field is truly far-out--flying into the outer reaches of the solar system, and although they do their work inside their facilities, they, too, are also virtually cruising with their creation through the oceans of space, the Kuiper Belt sea, and beyond. And among space-loving middle readers, this new book will take them along on a remarkable space voyage as well, from the first idea for the New Horizon vehicle to its ongoing discoveries for years to come. "Come fly with me," this book says, until we reach the boundaries of our solar system, perhaps finding the real "Planet Nine" along the way.

This book documents with ample photographs the whole story of the New Horizon mission from the beginning, and author Carson adds an appendix with glossary, bibliography, links to websites, and an index.

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