A Pluto Primer


A Pluto Primer

In about 9 days, when NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft zips past Pluto, everyone’s going to be a Pluto expert. Everybody’s favorite dwarf planet is going to the top news story for a few days. We’ll learn more about Pluto in the 85 hours around July 14th than we’ve learned in the 85 years since it’s discovery by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930.91786935.0

And, in about two weeks, everyone will be sick to death of Pluto. Well, not everyone, but a lot of people will be Pluto-ed out.

Here’s the basic information you need to know about this little ball of rock at the edge of the solar system.

•  is smaller than Earth’s moon – about two-thirds the size;
•  was named for the ruler of the underworld in Greek mythology;
•  has five of its own moons – Charon, Styx, Nix, Hydra and Kerberos and they are all named after characters of the underworld in Greek and Roman mythology;
•  the Disney dog was named for the planet;
•  is really cold. It’s surface temperature is around minus 380 degrees Fahrenheit.

For a moment, let’s think about what’s about to happen. Scientists began to seriously conceive of a mission to Pluto in the 1980s and, after several false starts – New Horizons actually launched in 2006.

A funny thing happened on the way to the ninth planet. It got downgraded from planet to dwarf planet. The International Astronomical Union (IAU )decided on a definition of “planet” that Pluto did not meet. As a result, it was reclassified as a dwarf planet.

Nonetheless, Pluto was still out there and New Horizons was well on it’s way by the time the IAU voted Pluto out of the planet club.

Fast forward about 10 years, and New Horizons is still out there – speeding along at nine miles per second. Thanks, in part, to a gravity assist by Jupiter, New Horizons is the fastest spacecraft ever launched.

The problem with Pluto is that it’s far away. Very far away.

The moon is our nearest neighbor at about 240,000 miles. Suppose you could drive a car to the moon (Let’s ignore all the things that make that impossible and focus on just distance and time) at 65mph. How long would it take?

About 150 days.

That’s five months driving 24 hours a day at 65mph. No stops at the Vince Lombardi Service Area. No visits to the largest ball of twine or the house made entirely of newsprint. So, it’s a haul.

If you could drive to Pluto the same way – 65 miles per hour, 24 hours a day – it would take about 6,500 years.

So, Pluto is really out there. It’s about 30 times as far from the sun as Earth. It’s so far out there that the Hubble Space Telescope can’t get a decent picture of it and that’s the reason we sent New Horizons. Pluto is so far away, the only way to learn about it, was to send a robot.

Pluto isn’t just a dwarf planet, it’s actually a really complicated system of celestial objects. Pluto has five moons. Its largest, Charon, is so large that it doesn’t even orbit Pluto. Charon and Pluto orbit a common center of gravity between the two objects and the other four moons orbit that point as well. nh-7-3-15_color_rotation_movie_nasa-jhuapl-swri

Pluto and Charon are a binary system with the other moons orbiting the two “dwarf planets” in the middle. The two bodies are what’s called tidally locked which means they keep the same face toward each other at all times. If you could stand on Pluto, Charon would seem to forever hover over you. Aren’t you glad you paid attention in geometry, now?

Included with its suite of cameras and scientific instruments are nine very human objects. These include two US flags, a CD-ROM of over 400,000 names of people who wanted to participate in this voyage of discovery and another CD-ROM with pictures of the team that conceived, devised and built the spacecraft.

There is a small piece of Spaceship One – the first privately funded manned spacecraft to fly in space. There are state quarters from Florida (where New Horizons was launched) and Maryland (where the spacecraft was built), there is a 1991 US postage stamp declaring “Pluto: Not Yet Explored,”

Finally, there is a small canister containing some of the ashes of Clyde Tombaugh containing the inscription:

“Interned herein are remains of American Clyde W. Tombaugh, discoverer of Pluto and the solar system’s ‘third zone’ Adelle and Muron’s boy, Patricia’s husband, Annette and Alden’s father, astronomer, teacher, punster, and friend: Clyde W. Tombaugh (1906-1997).”

Memorial Day is a day of remembrance for those who have died in service of the United States of America. It is a day to honor our fallen men and women.

While it’s never a mistake to thank a vet for his service, today is not about our veterans. Today is the one day each year when we honor the men who died in the service of our nation.

The United States has lost men in three dozen conflicts dating from the Revolutionary War to the war in Iraq. Americans have died fighting for their country and their country’s political/military goals in every corner of the map. Our servicemen have died on the beaches of Normandy, the rolling fields of Virginia, the jungles of Vietnam, the mountains of Afghanistan and the shores of Tripoli.

More than a million Americans have died in the service of our country. Each one a very personal tragedy for the men and their families.

Begun as a way to honor those who died fighting the Civil War, Memorial Day evolved to honor Americans who died fighting in any war. The original date May 30th was chosen because it did not fall on the anniversary of any specific battle. In 1971, Memorial Day (along with several other federal holidays) was moved to the last Monday in May to create a three-day weekend.65

In retrospect, the creation of the three-day Memorial Day weekend seems to have diluted the importance of the holiday.

According to Veterans of Foreign Wars organization “Changing the date merely to create three-day weekends has undermined the very meaning of the day. No doubt, this has contributed greatly to the general public’s nonchalant observance of Memorial Day.”

And, I might add, misunderstanding of the holiday. In November we honor the service of all our men and women. Today we honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice and didn’t come home.

Before his passing, Senator Daniel Inouye, A World War II veteran, filed legislation to change the observance of Memorial Day back to May 30th. Others continue working to restore the traditional date to honor our war dead.

Today, take a moment out of your shopping, barbecuing and sports-watching to pause and honor all the people who died for our country. Today is their day, let us not forget them.us-military-cemetery-normandy-france-2

So Finished


It’s over. I’m done. I said I’d never do it again, but I did and now I’ve finished it.

I went back to school for my masters in education. I’m glad I did, but I have zero interest in going further. I’m never doing this again. I meant it when I said it before, but now I really, really mean it.

I went one night per week for two years. That one night was a very long night – 4:30 to 9:15 and I tried to arrive by 4pm. It made teaching the next day seem super-long because I started the day tired. Couple that with my stupidly long commute and I was a zombie by bedtime.

It was a ton of work and the work got absolutely ridiculous at the end. I’m just trying to catch my breath as I catch up on all the things I deferred while I was finishing my program. Little things like grading student work, home maintenance, spending quality time with my uber-supportive wife.

Was it worth it?

Well, yes but I didn’t really have a choice. I went because I had too – it’s a requirement of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Department of Education.

But, I did get a lot out of it. I learned a lot about teaching and learning. I learned about teaching reading, special ed, and english language learners. I feel like I just scratched the surface for most of the subject matter but, at least I have an idea of what I don’t know and where to go when I need to learn more.

I owe a lot of thank yous to a lot of people. Thanks to my friends and my kids for being so supportive. I appreciate all the encouragement.000004407014_Large

Thank you to the men and women in my cohort at AIC. We were a good group and I hope we stay in touch. I learned as much from you than I did our professors (and in some cases a LOT more).

I am thankful that my current and former schools were supportive of my classwork. They let me leave early to attend class, and use my students as guinea pigs. Thank you to Ed Crowley for taking my crew every Tuesday.

Most importantly, I owe a debt of gratitude to my wife who put up with my stressed-out face, early bed times and long hours locked in my office doing papers, projects, sample lessons and a seemingly unending list of other homeworkie things.

Thank you all – I could not have done it alone.

Today is my graduation day. Time to celebrate

Flip the tassel, I’m done!

Well, to be accurate the International Astronomical Union (IAU) needs your help, but it’s about Pluto.

This is a great way people can get involved in planetary science without an advance degree, powerful telescope or even leaving the comfort of their homes: Help the IAU put together a list of potential names for features on Pluto and its largest moon, Charon.

Why now?

This summer, the New Horizons spacecraft is going to fly past these two mysterious celestial objects. The IAU wants a ready list of names for the craters, plains, mountains, valleys, rifts and whatever else we see on Pluto and Charon.

The Hubble Space Telescope – the magical window to the universe that has brought us breath-taking images of galaxies, nebula, star clusters and more – is unable to provide a detailed image of distant Pluto. Pluto is too small, too far away and too dimly lit.

NASA's best image of Pluto taken by the Hubble Space Telescope.

NASA’s best image(s) of Pluto taken by the Hubble Space Telescope.

That’s where New Horizons comes into play. Launched in 2006, New Horizons has been sailing through space towards a rendezvous with Pluto since before Pluto was demoted to dwarf planet status.

After a gravity assist by Jupiter, the spacecraft is zipping along at 9,000 miles per hour. Pluto is a long way from Earth so, even at that rate, it’s taken over ten years to get there.

The spacecraft will pass within 8,000 miles of Pluto and should provide an array of detailed high-resolution images.

The IAU would like your help in developing a list of potential names for the features of Pluto and Charon that are about to be discovered. They have a list of nominees that people can vote on broken down by categories and sub-categories:

History of Exploration
Historic Explorers: those who pioneered the exploration of the land, sea and sky.

Space Missions and Spacecraft: the launch vehicles that have carried our people and our machines into space, and the spacecraft we have used to explore the cosmos.

Scientists and Engineers: Those who have contributed to our understanding of Pluto and the solar system.

Literature of Exploration
Fictional Explorers and Travelers: The characters who have embarked on journeys in the stories we tell.

Fictional Origins and Destinations: The places they have sought and the homes they have left.

Fictional Vessels: The sailing ships, starships, and everything in between that have carried them on their journeys.

Exploration Authors and Artists: Those who have envisioned our explorations of the land, sea and space.

Mythology of the Underworld
Underworlds and Underworld Locales: The deep, dark places of mystery and death, as imagined in all the cultures of the world.

Travelers to the Underworld: The intrepid travelers who have ventured into the underworld and (sometimes) returned.

Underworld Beings: The deities, demons and denizens of the underworld in our stories.

If you’re not fully satisfied with the list of nominations, you can submit your own ideas.

I have already done so – under the category Literature of Exploration: Fictional Explorers and Travelers. I nominated Tom Swift – the central character in a long series of books about science and adventure. I think I read all of them when I was a kid and they helped inspire a life-long love of science.

So, put your thinking cap on and come up with your own ideas – get involved. Who knows, maybe someday we’ll be talking about the Tom Swift mountain range on Pluto.

I have a deep appreciation for sound. If you pay attention, it’s amazing the power sound has to define and enhance our experiences. There’s a direct connection between hearing and feeling – hearing is an emotional experience. Nothing has the power to evoke our emotions like a favorite song from our youth, the plaintive mew of a kitten or the whisper of a lover.

I was thinking the other day of what winter sounds like here in New England and how these sounds might be different from other warmer, parts of the country. Most people don’t live in New England and many don’t even experience winter the way we do in the northern parts of the country,

Here are some of the sounds from this winter here in New England:

The barely perceptible sound of snow falling around you. It’s a quiet, muffled, still kind of sound. It’s almost like a nearly silent tinkling  – like a smaller, subtler version of sand blowing around a beach.

The squish and squeak of snow compressing under a boot.

The deeper and louder yelp of car tires compacting snow into an ice-like white mass that will turn to actual ice and then resist melting until April.

The crunch and swoosh of a snow shovel biting into freshly fallen powder.

The “ungh” people make as they throw the white stuff as far away from the driveway or walkway as possible.

The high-pitch whine of tires on ice – spinning and sliding sliding sideways until they find traction.h94cw25dgxegd1zrhemx

The sharp, breaking china-like chink of an icicle cracking, then shattering on the ice-encrusted snow below.

The pop-pop, rumble-rumble of your neighbor’s snow blower as he starts it up at 6am for the fifth consecutive day.

The hollow, rubbery, aluminum sound of your other neighbor as he violently kicks at his snowblower, which refuses to start.

The deep-throated, scraping of a snow plow the next street over and the whooosh of snow being piled up into a matterhorn-like mound at the corner.

The dull thudding and crunching of two cars colliding because their drivers could not see around the matterhorn-like mound of snow at the corner.

The repetitive, disappointing sound of melted snow and ice dripping on your couch from a leak in your ice-damed roof.

The whooph-wooph-wooph of a thrown snow shovel helicoptering towards the snow plow that has just filled in the end of the driveway for the third time today.

The exploding, filthy words spewing forth the pent-up anger from the owner of a shoveled out spot that has been taken by an interloper. And then, the irritating scape of a vengeful key on automotive enamel.

The breathy, near orgasmic tone TV meteorologists adopt when discussing the “jackpot area” for snow accumulation.

The groan of an overburdened roof and the final cataclysmic crack as the support beams give way, bringing tons of snow and ice into your bedroom.

These are just a few of the sounds of winter in New England 2014-15. I hope you’ve enjoyed them.

With age comes understanding. Well, on a few topics, on many topics I’m more baffled than I was decades ago. One thing I have a keen understanding of is how my body functions. I guess experience really is a great teacher, and I have over half a century of experience with this body.

I have come to understand that my body naturally wants to rest in the late afternoon. Call it a siesta, tea time or nap time, by four o’clock I need a rest. After scores of years fighting this tendency, I have come to embrace it in the last decade.

I take naps.

There, I said it (well, wrote it).

I take naps and I’m not ashamed.

There was a long time – like 25 years – when I thought there was something wrong with me for getting so tired before the end of the work day. I really beat myself up a lot about it.

I used to fight through that late afternoon slump with coffee, surgery snacks and brisk walks around the office. When I was able, I’d try to sneak in a quick little nap but they were few and far between. I could get away with it at home on the weekends, most of the time, but that was pretty much it.

When I worked at an AT&T retail store, I’d take a cat nap in my car during my lunch break – coincidentally that was usually somewhere between 3pm and 5pm. I’d read a little, eat my lunch then sleep a little. I felt so much better after my little rest break.

I have to say, the guys I worked with made fun of me in the beginning, but it made such a difference in how I felt for the rest of the shift, I didn’t care how much they kidded me.

For me a nap is like rebooting your computer. It’s rebooting my brain. It gives me a fresh start, resetting my emotions and eliminating fatigue. Maybe the people I worked with saw the difference in me because, one-by-one, they all started napping in their cars.nap-time-13

Now, I try to get a little sleep every afternoon. It doesn’t take a lot – fifteen or twenty minutes of actual sleep will suffice – more, like an hour, is better of course.

Can I power through my day without a nap? Yes, and I often have too. But, I feel a whole lot better if I can get just a little shut-eye late in the afternoon. My wife is supportive of my nap time – she likes me better with a nap then when I don’t have one.
Unlike some people who sleep during the day, I never – and I mean never ever – have trouble sleeping at night. I get up early because that’s when I’m most alert and productive. I have a really hard time staying up late – but that seems easier to do in Las Vegas for some reason.

A little nap in the afternoon and a hot cup of fully caffeinated coffee and I’m ready for anything.

I’m a napper and I’m proud to admit it.

Everyone runs out of gas at one time in their life – well, everyone except my wife but that’s another story. I’d almost be willing to bet no one has hit the big “E” as often as I have.

It’s not as if I try to cruise around on fumes, it just kind of works our that way and occasionally, like twenty times in the past dozen years, I’ve grossly over-estimated the amount of fuel in my tank.

People say a little knowledge is a dangerous thing and I have to agree. For example, I know that there’s always couple of gallons left in the tank when the low-fuel light comes on and, to make matters worse, I also know that there are usually still a few drops left when the gauge reads empty. I just don’t ever believe my instruments until the engine coughs, hesitates and goes quiet.out-of-gas-running-empty-no-gas

At one time I had a ready excuse; my car, a rusted out 1981 Toyota Tercel, had no fuel gauge. I ran out only twice with that car. The most memorable time caught me racing to the bank to cash a check during my lunch hour. I was probably going to get gas money – and that’s exactly what I ended up doing.

I was cruising North on Route 495 just after the 495/93 exchange when my engine quit. I sighed, turned down the radio (I don’t know why, but that’s was my first reaction when I run out, and how sad is it that I have a routine for running out of gas?), and pulled into the breakdown lane. As I crossed the white line, it occurred to me that I was still traveling over 70mph and, at the very least, I could coast closer to the nearest gas station – which was at least a couple of miles away.

I rolled past the off ramp to Rte 28 still going about 40mph and that’s when I realized I might be able to make it all the way.

I rolled silently down the off ramp, made a quick look to my left to check for oncoming traffic, and pulled onto Rte 114 and into the Exxon station at the corner. After hiking over to the Shawmut Bank across the street to cash a check, I filled the car and headed back to work.  All-in-all, my little trip was a bit more exciting than I’d expected, but I did manage to get back to work before my lunch break ended.

Sadly, that has not always been the case. I pulled the same trick at a gas station in Chelmsford one morning. As I rolled in front of the pumps – silently again – I realized that station was still closed. That day, I missed an appointment while roundly cursing myself.

This running out of gas thing has become almost a rite of passage for all my cars. I don’t think I’ve ever owned a car that I didn’t find empty at one time or another.

When I bought a Ford Escort a few years ago, I assumed it had a low-fuel gauge. On the first full day I had the car it stopped running. I was idling in a parking lot, waiting for my wife. No reason, no explanation, and most importantly, no warning lights. As I looked up the number for roadside assistance in my owner’s manual, I was chagrined to note that the car didn’t even come with a low-fuel warning light. I guess someone at Ford figured I would have ignored it anyway even if they had included it.

No amount of gas will ever prevent me from running the tank to empty. While in college, I drove a 1967 Chrysler New Yorker – a car so large I could fit four teenagers in the trunk (don’t ask). It came with a 22-gallon gas tank that I don’t think I could ever afford to fill. In any case, I hit a dry patch one Friday afternoon after work. I was on my way to cash my paycheck and scrambling for gas held me up just long enough for the bank to close. I was left holding my paycheck all weekend (Right, this was back in the days before ATM’s, Saturday hours and branches in grocery stores). You can’t imagine how long a weekend can be until you’ve spent it flat broke. My girlfriend was none too impressed either.

My father still reminds me of the times – yes, more than once – that he had to bring me money for gas. Sometimes he had to travel scores of miles to bring me five dollars.

I’m sorry to admit that I’m still running out of gas at an embarrassing pace.

Just a month ago, my engine sputtered and died as I waited for an attendant to come out of his little booth at a Methuen gas station. I handed him two dollars and raced off wondering if I had enough to make it to work and home again.

Update: I wrote this in the 1990’s and have at least slowed down my frequency of running out of gas. I’m pretty sure I’ve only run out twice since 2005.


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