SSU out of this world, explains Pluto

By Joseph Pratt

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Shawnee State University’s Tim Hamilton, associate professor of physics and director of the Clark Planetarium, will be proving just how innovative and on top of current events Shawnee State University (SSU) is, as the professor presents a public astronomy talk and picture show on the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) mission to Pluto.

NASA’s “New Horizons” space probe will fly past Pluto on July 14, sending the very first close-up pictures of the planet and its five moons. The probe has already shown unexplained dark features on the Pluto’s surface, as well as the hint of a polar ice cap.

Hamilton hopes that once the pictures have been analyzed, an explanation can finally be constructed to determine the geology of the planet, how it formed and how different Pluto is from the other planets.

Hamilton says he is excited about this entire mission, because it will give accreditation to Pluto as a planet. The professor says that distinct features of the planet are already available and he believes the mission will prove the activity of the object and solidify its status as a planet.

“Whenever I bring up Pluto in a presentation, people always ask about whether it is a planet or not,” Hamilton said. “That has been one of my personal pet peeves for some time. Pluto is a planet. It is a major planet like all the rest of them.”

Hamilton said that the confusion extends from an organization called the International Astronomical Union, which has attempted to define what the word “planet” means in every language.

Hamilton said that the process began just to push Pluto out of the category of being a planet, but under the same factors Neptune wouldn’t even be considered a planet.

“A lot of us argue there is more than what they say to being a planet –does it have active geology, is there tectonic motion, is there some sort of hydrology or liquid— all of these things would be a better way to look at objects in space for the classification of a planet. This mission to Pluto will be the first close-up pictures we have of that planet and I believe it will clear things up.”

The New Horizon Space Probe was launched around ten years ago and Hamilton said that the technology used to create it is still impressive with today’s standards.

“The probe is small—only the size of a baby grand piano— and was made to be so small so that it could be launched with more force into space to reach Pluto in a reasonable amount of time,” Hamilton said. “This is the fastest probe ever launched and it past Jupiter within one year. It is so far away that it takes hours for a signal to come back to us.”

Hamilton said that, because of the distance, it will take months for all of the data to come in. Astronomers will then spend a long time pouring over the data to come to reasonable conclusions as to what they are seeing and gather more details on the small planet.

The presentation will come only two days after the data is released and Hamilton said he is happy to have Shawnee be a leader I the field and host informational lectures to explain this up-to-date information to the public.

“I’ll brag on us. We have our natural sciences department with some very talented individuals in the field, as well as many chemists and geologists. In physics and astronomy, we have to use a bit of all of those fields. I am especially excited because it brings together many subjects into one showcase. We have to be flexible and look at this in a non-technical way, and we want to explain these discoveries as we learn them with the public.”

The public talk and the explanation of the Pluto mission will be held Thursday, July 16 at 7 p.m. at the Clark Planetarium in the Advanced Technology Center building. Regular public shows for the summer schedule will continue showing every Monday and Thursday at 7 p.m. at the planetarium.

For more information, contact Shawnee’s Event & Conference Services by phone at 740-351-3390 or by e-mail at event&[email protected]

Reach Joseph Pratt at 740-353-3101, ext. 1932, or by Twitter @JosephPratt03.