“It’s been a busy and exciting summer at NASA. You all have seen in the news lots of developments about Pluto. There’s a brand new world we’ve just gotten our first look at in July, and we’re sending a new spacecraft out to Jupiter in 2016. Today, we’re going to focus on some of the smaller planetary bodies in our solar system,” said Dr. Michelle Thaller during the introduction of her lecture. “To me, the argument about whether or not Pluto is a planet is secondary to how fascinating some of these smaller worlds are. So come along and we will discuss some of the smaller but really, really significant worlds in our solar system.”
From Oct. 17-18, the Friends of Arlington’s David M. Brown Planetarium hosted their second weekend of programming for the 2015-16 school year. The theme was “Rockets and Space Flight.” The weekend consisted of a screening of the film October Sky on Saturday, Oct. 17, and a lecture titled, “It’s the Small Worlds, After All!” by Dr. Thaller, Director of Science Communication at NASA Headquarters, on Sunday, Oct. 18. Dr. Thaller described early observations of Pluto and the spectacular advances in observations after a dramatic flyby of Pluto using the NASA New Horizons spacecraft this summer.
“Up to this point, we didn’t have very good images of Pluto, and this is the best image we had until we arrived there in July,” Dr. Thaller said, showing old and new images of Pluto. “This image, taken by the Hubble telescope, shows some areas of Pluto that are darker and some lighter. Pluto has this heart shaped region which is a beautiful glacial flow of nitrogen ice. Pluto also has a lovely brownish color, which comes from the atmosphere interacting with ultraviolet light from the sun, and organic molecules called Tholins raining down on its surface.”
“There is much more liquid water on Jupiter’s moons, Europa and Ganymede, than there is on the entire Earth,” Dr. Thaller said, shifting her discussion to other smaller bodies in our solar system. Dr. Thaller’s lecture also covered:
• How exoplanets are detected by the Kepler spacecraft;
• Objects found in the Kuiper Belt and Oort Cloud of our outer solar system;
• The Juno spacecraft, which will be the first to travel in a polar orbit around Jupiter;
• The properties of the rings of Saturn and its moons, which are being characterized by the Cassini spacecraft;
• The moons of Jupiter;
• The detection of organic molecules (acetylene, methane, nucleic acids and fixed nitrogen compounds) and water throughout the solar system on moons, and other smaller planetary bodies and;
• How asteroids, comets, and meteorites provide us clues as to how our solar system formed.
“Though we were ultimately successful, there was no way for NASA to practice landing the Curiosity Rover on Mars, because the gravity there is so different from Earth’s. The retrorockets didn’t work here and there were so many things that we were unsure of,” Dr. Thaller said following a short video about NASA’s Curiosity Rover landing on Mars. “It’s been a tremendous couple of years, and we’re building another rover now, Mars 2020.”
“We’re have a mission arriving at Jupiter in July of 2016, and another going to Europa, so stayed tuned because there’s a lot of cool things coming from NASA,” Dr. Thaller concluded before taking questions.
The David M. Brown Planetarium is the only free standing planetarium in Northern Virginia, and the programs shown there are great for getting youngsters interested in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) fields. For more information, visit the Friends’ website: http://friendsoftheplanetarium.org. The theme of the Friends’ November weekend at the planetarium will be a tribute to Carl Sagan.