It took nine years for NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft to get to Pluto, and laying the groundwork for that history-making space mission here on Earth took nearly twice as long.
The drama and intrigue surrounding New Horizons during those decades, as chronicled in a new book titled “Chasing New Horizons: Inside the First Mission to Pluto,” might be enough for any planetary scientist. But Alan Stern — the book’s co-author, the mission’s principal investigator and arguably Pluto’s most ardent defender — is ready to do it all again.
Stern doesn’t expect his campaign to send an orbiter to Pluto to face quite as many challenges, now that the world knows so much more about the dwarf planet with a giant heart.
“I hope it’s a more straightforward process,” Stern told GeekWire. “First of all, there are now a lot more people who are interested in going back to Pluto. … Now that we’ve done the flyby, there isn’t a planetary scientist in the world that isn’t impressed.”
Last month, Stern and other New Horizons scientists signed onto a white paper calling for NASA to fund an in-depth study of potential Pluto orbiter missions. That grass-roots approach mirrors how the “Pluto Underground” campaign for New Horizons got started around a restaurant table in Baltimore, back in 1989.
“Chasing New Horizons,” written by Stern and astrobiologist David Grinspoon, traces the twists and turns that led from there to the piano-sized spacecraft’s launch in 2006 and its Pluto flyby in 2015.
Stern and Grinspoon recount how their team worked with — and competed against — more experienced mission planners at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory; how they tried and failed to get the Russians involved in doing a more ambitious mission; how they kept New Horizons alive after one NASA official declared it dead, dead, dead; and how they joined forces with the underdogs at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory to pull off a mission many said couldn’t be done.
The most harrowing crisis came just days before the flyby, when the spacecraft went out of contact with ground control due to an unanticipated computer glitch. The probe came back online, but New Horizons’ engineers had to scramble day and night to retransmit and verify the detailed instructions for the Pluto encounter.
“They did literally months of work in just a few days,” Stern recalled.
Why go through decades’ worth of trouble for the sake of one of the lesser-known, less appreciated members of the solar system’s planetary menagerie?
“What space engineer wouldn’t want to be on the first mission to the last planet?” Stern asked in reply.
When New Horizons was launched, Pluto was still widely considered the solar system’s smallest and farthest-out planet. But only months into the trip, a controversial vote by the International Astronomical Union reclassified Pluto and other worlds of its ilk as dwarf planets — and declared that dwarf planets should not be regarded as true planets.
Stern said he and Grinspoon originally wrote a whole chapter about the planethood debate. But when the publisher told them to trim their manuscript by 40 percent, that section was shrunk down to a mere three pages in a 320-page book.
Downplaying the debate was the right choice: It helps keep the focus on the mission, and lets the authors talk about Pluto’s planethood without provoking an argument. Besides, there are plenty of other books (including “The Case for Pluto,” by yours truly) that address the IAU decision in depth.
“This whole IAU debacle will be some sort of a weird trivia question 30 years from now, because I think our side has all but won,” Stern said. “The only problem we really have is that we don’t think voting is the appropriate way to do things in science, so we don’t want to take it back to another vote. We’re trying to just change minds by consensus — which is working.”
Whether you call it a planet, a dwarf planet or a Kuiper Belt object, Pluto’s status has definitely risen thanks to the pictures and data sent back by New Horizons.
The smooth, heart-shaped region now known as Tombaugh Regio, in honor of Pluto’s discoverer, has become a bonafide internet meme. Other pictures reveal the blue glow of Pluto’s thin atmosphere, backlit by the sun; evidence of clouds and ice volcanoes; and towering mountains thought to be made of frozen water. Pluto’s biggest moon, Charon, is a book-worthy subject by itself.
All these discoveries, and the additional scientific questions they raise, are whetting Stern’s appetite for a follow-up mission to Pluto. But that’s not the only thing on his mind.
For example, the New Horizons team has to get ready for another flyby, past a smaller object in the icy Kuiper Belt known as 2014 MU69 or Ultima Thule. That’s due to take place on Jan. 1, and the resulting data will keep the team busy for months afterward.
Stern is also on the science teams for NASA’s Europa Clipper mission to a mysterious, ice-covered moon of Jupiter; NASA’s Lucy mission to a set of asteroids captured in Jupiter’s orbit; and a Kuiper Belt mission that could be proposed next year. And if that’s not enough, he has yet another book in the works, titled “Launch to Leadership: Nine Business Lessons From the Exploration of Pluto.”
Those are a lot of new horizons for Stern to keep track of. Fortunately, he’s the kind of scientist who revels in the chase.
Stern and Grinspoon will discuss the book and the New Horizons mission during a talk titled “Inside the First Mission to Pluto,” presented at Seattle’s Museum of Flight in partnership with Town Hall Seattle at 7:30 p.m. on May 17. The talk is part of a nationwide book tour that begins this week in Washington, D.C. For the full list of tour dates, check the events page online at AlanStern.space.