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Celebrate historic Pluto flyby with space party at ASU

NASA image of Pluto from New Horizons spacecraft
July 13, 2015

Pluto may have been kicked out of our solar system’s VIP club nine years ago, but this week it’s back in the spotlight.

The dwarf planet – demoted from full planet status in 2006 – will get a historic flyby from NASA’s New Horizons mission on Tuesday, and Arizona State University is celebrating with a free Pluto Palooza party.

Expert speakers, live NASA feeds and plenty of Pluto love are the order of the day as the School of Earth and Space Exploration hosts the event. Partygoers can watch live with other space enthusiasts as the exploratory New Horizons spacecraft, launched in January 2006, returns the first-ever close-up images of Pluto and its moons.

The New Horizons craft will have traveled more than 3 billion miles over nearly 10 years, and the flyby represents a major milestone, said David Williams, an associate research professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration.

“This event marks the completion of the initial reconnaissance of the solar system, which started with the Mariner 2 flyby of Venus in 1962 and occurs 50 years to the day of the first flyby of Mars by Mariner 4, on July 14, 1965,” said Williams, who is also the director of the Ronald Greeley Center for Planetary Studies, the NASA regional planetary information facility at ASU.

Williams said Tuesday's flyby will also open up the exploration of a new zone in the solar system: the Kuiper Belt, home of many icy bodies and thought to be the source of short-period comets.

He points out that all planetary flybys have been done by NASA spacecraft and that completing the solar-system recon is something that should make Americans proud.

So what does NASA hope to discover with this latest flyby? Williams said the data will tell us Pluto’s true nature.

“Is it more like a rocky body, is it more like a comet, is it more like a moon of the outer gas-giant planets?” Williams said. “From these data it will be possible to properly classify Pluto as a planetary object.”

Speaking of classifying Pluto, how does Williams – who is also a participating scientist in NASA’s Dawn mission studying the asteroid Vesta and dwarf planet Ceres in the asteroid belt – come down on the planetary ruling?

“I understand the decision made by the International Astronomical Union to demote Pluto (either demote Pluto, or we have to memorize the names* of about six more dwarf planets discovered in the Kuiper Belt since the 1990s),” he said. “But the scientific reasoning in the definition of a dwarf planet is shaky, and needs to be re-evaluated.

“Pluto doesn't care whether it is a planet or dwarf planet, but I am most interested in the new data so we can put the question to rest.”

The flyby party runs from 3 to 7:30 p.m. on the Tempe campus, and highlights include:
• 3:30 p.m.: Explore the Gallery of Scientific Exploration and view Pluto simulations in the Marston Exploration Theater.
• 4 p.m.: Talk by Williams describing the Dawn and New Horizons missions, including the most recent images of the dwarf planets Ceres and Pluto. 
• 5:30 p.m.: Watch live NASA feed of Pluto “phoning home.”
• 6:30 p.m.: Talk by professor Steve Desch on the Kuiper Belt and how Pluto is a representative of that. He will also discuss Pluto’s moon Charon, its other moons and what we are expecting to see as we receive more information on the Pluto system.

Pluto Palooza
When: 3-7:30 p.m.
Where: Interdisciplinary Science and Technology Building 4, ground floor; ASU Tempe campus. Click here for a map.
Parking: The most convenient parking is in the Rural Road parking structure near the corner of Rural and Lemon Street. Click here for a parking map PDF.

*Pluto’s demotion made null the old mnemonic for remembering the planets in order: “My Very Excellent Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas” (Mars, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, Pluto). However, ASU News humbly submits this updated version: “My Very Excellent Mother Just Served Us Nachos.”