A Certain Point of View on Pluto

Nine decades ago, the largest of the most distant objects in our Solar System was discovered by an observer in America.  Even today, it is still king over thousands of similar known objects residing past the gas giant Neptune.  All of these objects share many of the same physical characteristics.  Some leave their distant neighborhood to embark on a long journey towards and around our Sun, and are known as comets.

The discovery of this one object is a fascinating tale, for it was not found at random.  Neptune was discovered 75 years prior, and astronomers had noted over that time that Neptune’s orbit was not quite the same as the other three known gas giants (Uranus, Saturn, and Jupiter).  It was thought that a planet similar in size to Neptune and Uranus must lie just beyond the orbit of Neptune, pulling at Neptune via gravity.  And so a search was underway.

After its discovery in 1930, the newfound object was thought to be the solution to the Neptune orbit question.  As such, it had to be very large.  Soon it ranked among our Solar System’s magnificent residents.  In short order and for the next half century, it would be counted in science textbooks across America as one of the nine planets orbiting the Sun.  This harmonic order was solidified in schools and reinforced by all the amazing advances happening in science generally and our space program in particular.

Also during that half century, astronomers continued to learn and understand so much more about how our Solar System is built.  They realized, for one, that the inner found planets (Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars) are a family of objects.  The outer gas giant planets, starting with Jupiter, are another family.  Each family was created in their own similar manners and composed of the same basic materials.

More importantly, the inner versus outer distinction among the planets is strongly related.  The four inner planets, being so close to the hot Sun, long ago burnt off all their access gas, primarily hydrogen and helium, to leave mostly their rocky cores.  The inner planets really are rocks, and we’re on the third from the Sun.  By contrast, the outer planets were not close enough to the Sun to burn off their access hydrogen and helium, so they remained, and still do, in their large, gaseous forms.  That is why we call them gas giants.

Like an ever-increasing jigsaw puzzle, more and more parts of our Solar System have been revealed thanks to advances in astrophysics.  How many parts to the Solar System are there?  Classically from ancient times, there were only a handful of planets, including the Moon and Sun.  For a while, in the early 19th century, there were more than ten planets accounted for, but eventually those newly-discovered objects, such as Ceres, were determined to be asteroids, a class of objects on their own.

Returning to the object discover almost 90 years ago, it was the first of the newest Solar System class, known today as Kuiper belt objects.

So we classify our Solar System roughly by five major object types:

  1. The center star, our Sun
  2. The inner rock planets
  3. Asteroids, most predominant between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter
  4. The outer gas giant planets
  5. Kuiper belt objects, which include comets

Around the same time that this first and largest Kuiper belt object was discovered, an important cultural genesis was happening elsewhere.  Mr. Walt Disney was creating his beloved cartoon characters, which are still the core of his Disney empire today.  One of these was a dog named Pluto.

Thanks to the intersection of planets traditionally being named for mythological gods and Disney’s cultural phenomenon, a star, err…planet, was born.

First Impressions Are Everything

We all know today the cultural battle – and it is cultural, not scientific – around Pluto’s demotion from the ranks of the other eight planets.  What exactly happened, and why is it still such a hot-button issue?

Some 15 years ago, a group of scientists, including Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, whose writings on the Pluto affair I base much of this post on, created a museum exhibit in New York to show the scale of the entire universe.  When it came to the Solar System part of the exhibit, being good scientists and knowing how Pluto is best classified as a Kuiper belt object, they placed Pluto not with the other eight planets, but with the Kuiper display.  Their exhibit made no specific mention of why Pluto was not in the planet exhibit.

This was mistake #1.  Culturally, Pluto has been ingrained into every school student for the past 60+ years as one of the nine planets.  Pluto was a planet just as the Sun rises and sets each day – it was taken for granted and never questioned by the general public, because they were never given a reason to question Pluto’s status.

But during that 60-year span, astrophysicists gradually realized that Pluto was not like any of the other planets.  It is mostly ice, smaller than Earth’s Moon.  If Pluto was ever near the Sun, it would form a tail, just like a comet, because Pluto is essentially a comet that never gets close enough to the Sun to start melting off its ice.  Its chemical composition is unlike the eight planets as well, but it is similar in makeup to the other Kuiper belt objects that reside at the farthest known space of our Solar System.

So it was obvious in the field of astrophysics that Pluto was unique and separate, but scientists never made mention of this (certainly not enough to change Pluto’s textbook status as a planet), particularly in their universe museum exhibit.

A reporter for the New York Times saw the exhibit, noted Pluto’s exclusion from the other eight planets, and wrote a sensational published article on how scientists unilaterally decided to demote Pluto.  At that point, scientists lost the battle for the narrative, because they allowed someone external from their profession to control it.  Dr. Tyson claims the exclusion was innocent and not intended to offend, but this reaction only reinforces a problem scientists have even today – they don’t understand that their knowledge has the power to upend common assumptions, and importantly, the aftershocks they can cause.

People prefer stability over change.  In a chaotic world, they look for constants.  The basics of what every contemporary adult man and woman was taught in elementary school is like a sacred foundation.  What happens when you tell them 2+2 no longer equals 4?  That is how most everyone reacted to the news that Pluto was, effectively, no longer a planet.

Digging a Hole

Like you, I grew up believing Pluto to be the ninth planet of the Solar System.  Like you, I was affronted when the news about Pluto’s apparent demotion began circulating.  And like you, I was even more upset when I heard, about a decade ago, that a group of scientists “officially” decreed Pluto no longer a planet.

Dr. Tyson is correct in that if Pluto was not named after a Disney character, the storm around its planetary status may never have gotten so big.  It may have flared and then subsided.  But Pluto is not just a planet to most, it is a beloved planet.  The sacred textbook matter is reinforced by the public’s fondness for something named after a Disney character.

The official reason and decision on Pluto only made matters worse.  This was mistake #2.  First, nobody (in the general public) is going to be swayed into rethinking Pluto because it has not cleared its orbit of debris.  That may make sense to an astrophysicist but not to a New York Times reporter.  Secondly, the problem was only compounded by calling Pluto no longer a planet, but a “dwarf planet.”

With apologies to Snow White’s hardworking miners as well as Gimli, nobody and nothing ever wants to be relegated to the status of “dwarf.”  Yesterday, you were an apple.  Today, you are a dwarf apple, because scientists say so.

The optics of calling Pluto a “dwarf planet” are horrible.

Fruitless Amends

After reading Dr. Tyson’s full explanation, I am thoroughly convinced Pluto is not a planet like the four inner and four outer planets.  I contend that any reasonable person who reads Chapter 9 of Dr. Tyson’s co-authored book Welcome to the Universe will agree as well.  There was no ulterior motive, no political agenda in demoting Pluto.  It was not about making our knowledge of the Solar System fit to keeping Pluto a planet, but recognizing that today’s accumulated knowledge puts Pluto into another class of object.

Mistake #3 has been the ongoing attempt by scientists to make some sort of compromise classification of Pluto, to return it to full planet status.  This is an Occam’s Razor matter – any new, refined definition to make Pluto a full planet again comes along with its own complications.  Pluto is the largest and most famous Kuiper belt object.  That is a grand status on its own.  But status is not science.  So why are scientists trying to “save” Pluto?  Perhaps for the fame of being the savior of a cultural icon is my guess.

I will not say, “Scientists should have done X, Y, and Z to have avoided the Pluto public relations nightmare.”  The Pluto matter is about the need for scientists to understand the enormous power they wield, especially as science itself becomes more potent in challenging long-held beliefs.  This is particularly true for how scientists communicate their knowledge to the public at large.  “You don’t have that option,” to not believe what scientists tell you to believe is no way to dispel the stigma of scientists being arrogant, over-educated fools who want to be your new high priests.  Science may be objective, but scientists are still human, complete with their own failings and prejudices.  That public figures like Dr. Tyson don’t appreciate their own complicit role in Pluto’s problem is one example of how scientists have to change their strategy for convincing the general public that the causes of science are sincere and real.

Dr. Tyson is likely very much aligned ideologically with his childhood hero, Carl Sagan.  Sagan, however, had a demeanor and way about him that invited everyone, regardless of their beliefs, to the knowledge of the cosmos.  It is to Sagan’s approach that I would look for the communication answers, not to the contemporary scientist’s abrasive method.

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Constellations I: Testing Ursa Minor, Snagging Draco

Do you see Polaris, Ursa Minor, and Draco?
Click to enlarge to full size.

On Monday, the same night I photographed Jupiter and Io, I also set up my tripod and new digital camera.  I want to start taking wide-field pictures of the night sky.

As a test subject, I pointed at the Little Dipper.  On the digital camera, everything has to be set to manual.  The longest setup time was in getting the focus just right.  For this, I used the brightest “star” available, Jupiter.

I took 17 images at ISO 3200, 18mm, and 10 second exposures.  I then took eleven dark frames – same camera settings but with the lens cap on.  This is to ascertain camera noise.  Finally I took 14 bias frames.  These are dark as well – lens cap on – but very fast shots.  In reading up on this, it’s possible I did not need bias frames, but I used them anyway.

I put all these images into DeepSkyStacker, and the above is what I got.  This is not a very interesting part of the sky, and my light pollution does not help.  In Ursa Minor I can see Polaris and the two bright end stars, but the middle ones are more difficult.  Something like Draco I cannot see at all.  So it is remarkable what the camera can pull out!

I am pleased with the amount of stars I captured.  Can you see Polaris and Ursa Minor?  I also got all of Draco in this picture, which surprised me.  Do you see it?

If you are having trouble (like so many of my co-workers did), please see this cheat image I created.  I purposefully am not showing the image directly in the blog post, to give you time to first study the raw picture before looking at the “answers.”

First Attempt at Jupiter Animated GIF, with Io

Putting together this animated GIF was mostly an accident turned prototype.  I had planned to try making Jupiter animations once I felt reasonably confident with my digital camera.  But I noticed after Monday night’s session, which happened to capture Io as it was about to pass behind Jupiter, that I had roughly 12 minutes of video on Jupiter, somewhat evenly spaced.  So here is the end result.

I used different gammas, which causes a couple of the frames to be brighter.  If I wanted to make a clean GIF I would have uniformly set the gamma.  Also, I discovered that centering the image is very tricky, and will likely be the hardest part of the process when I try to string together an hour or two of footage.  Maybe I will figure out a shortcut on these cloudy and rainy nights.

Jupiter in Prime Focus, Testing My New x5 Barlow

Click to enlarge.

April 17th, 2017, 12:15 a.m. local time

After my first attempt at Jupiter in prime focus, I decided to splurge and get a Tele Vue Powermate x5.  Finally on Easter Sunday evening with a nice break in the neverending clouds, I took my 127mm Mak-Cass outside, set up the camera, and went to work.

I should note before proceeding that my first 2017 Jupiter was done with my homemade 10″ Dobsonian and a standard x2 Barlow lens.  The above picture was with my 5″ Orion StarSeeker IV and the new Tele Vue Powermate x5.  In both sessions I used my Baader Neodymium filter and Canon EOS Rebel SL1.  So today’s picture was done with a lot less aperture but a much better Barlow lens, both in magnification and grade.  I used the smaller scope tonight only because it was a bit quicker to set up and has GoTo tracking, though the tracking did not help much.

I still have about a dozen videos to process, but this is my first post-processed image from stacked video (x1.5 Drizzle).  I am pleased with this first result, and a bit surprised the small 127mm scope worked so well.  It was an added bonus to have the Great Red Spot framed nicely.

In hindsight, as I am still learning to use both my DSLR camera for telescope astrophotography as well as this new magnifying lens, there is much room for improvement.  I hope the skies are clear again tonight to give it around go!

If any of my other Jupiters from tonight turn out good, I will post them later.

Thanking the Planets for Scientific Advancement

If it were not for the planets, where would civilization be today?  For one, I doubt I would have this computer, and the electricity to power it.  The people of this alternative 21st century would be waiting at least several hundred years more for those amenities.

The classical planets of the Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn are the exceptions in the sky.  (And did you just notice that there are seven of them?  Think of the days of the week.)  There are clouds too, but for our ancestors those were easy to explain as both the chores and whims of the gods.  The stars are fixed, as far as the unaided can see.  But those crazy planets break the rules, making the geocentric universe difficult to explain.

(Uranus was out there too, but likely went unnoticed until Sir William Herschel came along as nothing but an insignificant, dim star, moving too slowly for anyone to appreciate.)

The Sun and Moon are fairly easy as well.  Though they wobble in the sky throughout the year, nothing is perfect, right?  The point being their motions are very easy to predict, day after day, month after month, and year after year.

Then there are the visible planets, the real planets of Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn.  If not for these, there may never have been any questioning of the order of our solar system, or our place in it.  Scientific advancements took off, in the context of the arc of history, once people accepted that the Earth revolved around the Sun.  For if we did not have these planetary exceptions in the sky, would there ever have been the intellectual curiosity to question?

The planets, unlike the “fixed” stars, offer these problems to explaining the geocentric model (i.e. Earth being at the center of the universe):

  • There is a difference in behaviors between the two inner planets and the three outer planets.  Whereas Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn at least appear follow the elliptic path of the Sun, Venus and Mercury are constantly zigging and zagging in proximity to the Sun.  Mercury quickly bounces from dusk to dawn.  Venus sometimes climbs really high in the sky, yet also falls back into Mercury-like behavior.
  • The planets speed up and slow down.
  • Sometimes, the planets start moving in the opposite direction of everything else (retrograde motion).
  • Mars is a very curious case by itself, since at times it will shine as brightly as Venus and at others be dimmer than Saturn.

Copernicus was the first to publish the notion that the planets revolve around the Sun.  Later, Kepler devised his laws of planetary motion, which explain all of the conditions listed above.  Still later, Newton came long, basing his general laws of gravity and motion on Kepler’s earlier work (and Kepler’s laws turned out to be a special case of Newton’s general gravitational laws).  Newton’s work in this and related areas was the genesis of our modern scientific knowledge.

If there were no planets, there would have been no questioning of the Earth’s status relative to the Sun.  If that questioning never happened, we would have never had a true reference as to our place in the universe, making fundamental questions on physics difficult to comprehend.  I don’t doubt that eventually we would have come around to figuring these things out, only that it would have taken far longer if not for the guidance of the planets.

So here’s to you, Mercury, for your quickness.

Here’s to you, Venus, for your brightness.

Here’s to you, Sun, for keeping the lights on when we need them.

Here’s to you, Moon, for all of your cool phases.

Here’s to you, Mars, for being the most famous red beacon in the sky.

Here’s to you, Jupiter, for your steadfastness.

And here’s to you, Saturn, for the delight you reveal through our telescopes.

Nearly Full Moon, Waning – April 2017

ISO 200, f/5.6, 1/640 exposure, 55mm. Very minor post-processing in Adobe Photoshop Elements.

April 11th, 2017, 11:40 p.m. local time

It was bright, as expected.

Moon, Jupiter, and Spica – April 2017

ISO 1600, f/4, 4s exposure, 55mm

April 11th, 2017, 11:30 p.m. local time

Tonight’s session was mostly about me fighting with my tripod and my manual lens focusing.  I think this came out Ok, though.

Moon through a DSLR Camera

ISO 200, f/5.6, 1/640 exposure, 55mm. Very minor post-processing in Adobe Photoshop Elements.

April 8th, 2017, 1:45 a.m. local time

After waiting hours for the clouds to clear on Jupiter opposition day, I finally had a chance to try photographing the big planet again with my new Canon EOS.  Unlike last night, the results were meager; I will probably mention them in a future post.  But also at this time, very early in the morning, the Waxing Moon was still out and high.  So I put a lens on the camera and took some pictures.

This is all still a learning experience for me.  What’s nice, I discovered, is that the camera stores metadata on the image, such things as ISO, exposure, etc.  This is good because now I don’t have to manually log my settings after each picture taken.

My hope is to use this DSLR camera for two purposes – planetary imaging with my telescopes, and wide-field sky views on a tripod.  I have yet to try the latter.  But as the above shows, it is also easy enough to take a quick shot of the Moon at 2 a.m.

First Jupiter of 2017

April 6th, 2017, 10:30 p.m. local time

My telescope session tonight was a bit impromptu all around.  After a week of rain and more rain, a partly cloudy sky offered a great chance to get one of my telescopes out.  As the big 10″ Dobsonian had been idle for too many weeks, I lugged it outside, first to look at the Moon and then to see Jupiter.

I also have a new DSLR camera that I wanted to try.  I am still learning how to operate it, but I felt this was as good a time as any to try out prime focus astrophotography.

So I connect my newly-acquired T-ring to my new Canon EOS, then attached the T-ring to another adapter and then that to my Barlow.  After post-processing about a half dozen images, the above is my best result.

I know I can do better, but I am glad I made this first attempt.  Once I learn how to use the camera for real, I am sure the results will improve.