Pluto talk captivates audience

BIG MEADOWS — The clearest images ever taken of Pluto may have rekindled public excitement over space exploration.

On Tuesday, the American space probe New Horizons returned the images of the famous dwarf planet and its orbiting satellites Charon, Hydra, Nix, Styx and Kerberos.

On Thursday evening during a passionate presentation, Greg Redfern, a NASA Solar System ambassador, shared some of NASA’s findings with a crowd of about 50 stargazers at Big Meadows Lodge in Shenandoah National Park.

“One of the biggest surprises that the New Horizons team found was how young the surfaces of Pluto and Charon are … geologically,” Redfern said. “When you look at a body like our moon, it has been pounded by incoming meteorites, asteroids and comets for billions of years.”

Redfern’s lecture prompted numerous questions from his audience as well as clearly audible “wows” and statements of awe at the probe’s findings.

“That’s the real joy in doing this, because you’re opening people’s minds,” Redfern said.

The general public is not alone in its awe, either. The first images New Horizons transmitted on Tuesday has researchers worldwide both puzzled and intrigued.

With Pluto and Charon, Redfern said, the lack of impact craters made it look like the objects have geologically young surfaces. “The only way that can happen is if there is some kind of replenishing process that can go on to eradicate the craters.”

On Friday, NASA revealed even more images that showed the smoothness of Pluto’s surface.

On top of that, Tuesday’s images revealed that Pluto has 11,000-foot-tall mountain ranges, roughly comparable to the Rocky Mountains, and scientists are baffled by a 4-mile-deep canyon on Charon, which is deeper than the Grand Canyon.

And, as Redfern pointed out near the end of his presentation on Thursday, there is even more data to come from this historic mission. He said that it will take researchers roughly 16 months to fully download all of the data and images from the July 10 flyby, and around three years to analyze everything.

He added that there is a proposal for an extended New Horizons journey to explore the icy objects of the Kuiper Belt Region — the outermost area in the solar system. The probe was launched in January 2006 by NASA, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory and several other partners to learn more about Pluto and its surrounding system.

“When I do ‘The Universe and You,’ the last slide says, ‘The universe always surprises, stay tuned,” he said of one of his series of lectures that cover 13 different space-related topics every year. The “Universe and You” lecture is a discussion about Earth, its place in the cosmos and where it is headed.

Thursday’s presentation was the second of the season for the park’s “Let’s Talk About Space in Shenandoah!” lecture series.

Redfern, a Ruckersville resident and an adjunct professor of astronomy at George Mason University, said NASA formed a partnership with the National Park Service to “try and bring another aspect of nature” to the park’s visitors. He noted that Thursday’s crowd was the largest he has seen to date.

Part of the reason for the public’s fascination with Pluto may stem from the ongoing controversy surrounding Pluto’s planetary status, Redfern noted.

In 2006, the International Astronomical Union reclassified the solar system’s ninth planet as a dwarf planet — much to the chagrin of many scientists and caring citizens.

“I think people have an innate curiosity about the universe in which they live,” Redfern said.

“Once they understand that they can understand this stuff, they can’t get enough of it,” he added. “They want to know more.”

Redfern will deliver the “New Horizons to Pluto” talk at 9 p.m. Sunday at Skyland Resort.

The full schedule of lectures in “Let’s Talk About Space in Shenandoah!” series is listed at http://bit.ly/1LfeCVH.

Contact staff writer Kevin Green at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or kgreen@nvdaily.com