By Liz Cantrell
For The Essex Reporter
Considering that it’s 4.5 billion years old, not much was known about Pluto until a week ago. The dwarf planet at the far reaches of our solar system has existed since its discovery in 1930 as a tiny, obscure ball of ice.
That all changed last Tuesday when NASA spacecraft New Horizons completed its Pluto flyby.
Saint Michael’s College Professor John O’Meara, 41, is one of many astronomers and physicists who has been intently following New Horizon’s mission since its inception nine years ago.
“We basically knew very little about Pluto, aside from how far away it was and that it had a few moons, and a bit about its composition. It was very much a blank slate, unlike the other planets in the pioneer Voyager missions. It was the only classical solar system object we had never flown past,” he said.
O’Meara — who received his bachelor’s degree in physics from the University of Washington in 1997 and his Ph.D. in physics from the University of California, San Diego in 2004 — researches galaxy formation and gas recycling.
“I look at how galaxies like our Milky Way take the gas in their surroundings and form it into stars, and how the stars return that material into that environment,” he said.
While his research does not focus on the planetary system specifically, O’Meara is thrilled for the Pluto mission. He describes himself as an “insane fiend for the big missions that NASA is involved in.”
New Horizons launched in 2006, the same year that Pluto lost its full planetary status. It took the NASA ship nine years to travel the three billion miles from Earth to Pluto. New Horizons did not orbit or land, but simply passed over at a distance of approximately 7,800 miles. “It would be like getting data on Kansas via a flight from New York to Los Angeles and just looking from above,” O’Meara says.
The complete New Horizons data will not return to Earth until the end of 2016. O’Meara explains that it is difficult to send large quantities of data that distance because some is lost in transmission, so the data recovery takes time. Additionally, O’Meara says, “they’ve only got a tiny antennae on that ship, and then a ‘deep space network’ here on earth that is used for all missions, so there are only certain times we can look at New Horizons data.”
The mission was designed to determine basic information about Pluto and its five moons, such as topography, atmospheric conditions, and elemental composition. Early photographs indicate that Pluto has tall ice mountains, with some at 11,000 feet, as high as the Rocky Mountains.
O’Meara says it was an exciting and “immediate, visceral reaction” to finally see what Pluto’s surface looked like, “because we just had no idea. “
One of the more surprising features is that Pluto has no craters, indicating that its surface is only about 100 million years old, which is fairly young by solar system standards. Pluto itself is about 4.5 billion years old, like the rest of the solar system, but its surface may be much younger because of unknown tectonic features.
Next, New Horizons will continue its mission with further exploration of the Kuiper Belt— a ring of debris extending beyond the solar system—to which Pluto belongs.
While New Horizons will reveal a trove of valuable data for astronomy, physics, and other scientific fields, O’Meara believes there is a larger purpose for these projects. “It fundamentally appeals to the one thing that separates us from all the other animals on the planet, which is that we are curious and we explore, ever since we came down from trees,” he says. Space exploration grabs people and “encourages a general curiosity in science.”
For the fiscal year 2014, the NASA budget of approximately $17.7 billion represented about 0.5 percent of the U.S. federal budget. That, O’Meara says, “is a small price to pay to ignite interest in the scientific world.”