C.C. Petersen

About C.C. Petersen

I am a science writer and media producer specializing in astronomy and space science content. This blog contains news and views about these topics.

The People of Pluto

Following the Long and Winding Road

Tommy Shaw, Todd Sucherman and Lawrence Gowen of the band Styx pose for a picture with members of the New Horizons science team, Wednesday, July 1, 2015 at The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md.  Members of the band Styx visited with New Horizons team members and Mark Showalter, who discovered Pluto's fifth moon, Styx, in July of 2012.   Photo Credit: (NASA/Joel Kowsky)

Meet the people of Pluto, along with Tommy Shaw, Todd Sucherman and Lawrence Gowen of the band Styx as they pose for a picture with members of the New Horizons science team, Wednesday, July 1, 2015 at The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md. Members of the band Styx met with Mark Showalter, who discovered Pluto’s fifth moon, Styx, in July, 2012. Photo Credit: (NASA/Joel Kowsky)

By now, you’ve probably heard that New Horizons has recovered from its safe mode event of July 4th, and will be resuming science operations on July 7th, 2015. That’s great news, and a great tribute to the team that figured out the problems within 30 minutes of the event, and then came up with the recovery plan.

Meet the Folks

I want to talk about that team. It’s made up of very amazing people. I’ve been privileged to know and/or study with several of the members over the years. This comes mostly from our joint association with the University of Colorado back when I was learning the ways of the cosmos and trying to decide whether to become a full-time scientist or pursue my love of science writing and outreach. I had the great good luck to do both for a long time, working as a scientist and learning to tell the story of exploration.

New Horizons PI Alan Stern is a long-time friend from back in the days when I first showed up at CU to pursue a grad degree. We both ended up with the same advisor. He was close to finishing his PhD, and I recall sitting in his office talking about this and that (mostly comets, but also outer solar system worlds).  I also remember going to his thesis defense, and thinking up a question to ask him that I then decided was pretty dumb (about cryovolcanism), so I didn’t ask it. A minute later, one of his examination faculty asked that exact question — and the answer was “Not in this thesis.”

It wasn’t really a dumb question, it just wasn’t part of the conclusions he came to in his work. I remembered that, and when it came time to defend my own thesis some years later, I got a chance to use that same line with the same confidence in my work.

Then there’s Fran Bagenal, who is the lead for the particles and plasma physics team on New Horizons. From Fran I learned about Jupiter. And women in science. And the value of a dry sense of humor. She taught a couple of classes in planetary science that I attended, and the year I graduated, consented to be part of a planetarium (now fulldome) show we created about a young girl who grows up to be an astronomer. She cheerfully put up with the demands of filming, helping our child actor through her part, and having fun at the observatory where we filmed. It was my pleasure to be asked to sit in on her tenure committee as a student advisor.

Fran has been a co-investigator and/or science team member on the Voyager, Galileo, Deep Space 1, and Juno missions. She has worked with Hubble Space Telescope observations of Jupiter, in particular the Io plasma torus. I can think of no better person to be in charge of checking out the particles at Pluto.

The third person from the University of Colorado who is also on the New Horizons team is Mihaly Horanyi. He came to the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics during my years there as a comet researcher, and we often talked about comets and dust particles in cometary orbits. I remember the day ROSAT detected x-rays at a comet; we both met in the hallway with big grins on our faces and talked about the processes that would cause such a thing.

Mihaly’s leading the Student Dust Counter team for the New Horizons mission, and has been involved with the LADEE, Cassini, Ulysses, and other missions. He was one of the first LASP folks to friend me on Facebook when I finally got an account there.

It’s been some years since we were all at the same lab together, and we’ve all gone on to do big things. I graduated, moved on to work in science outreach, first as an editor at Sky & Telescope, as a senior writer for science exhibits at the California Academy of Sciences, Griffith Observatory, and NASA JPL. Now, I’m CEO of a successful production company that has shows about astronomy and space science in fulldome theaters around the world. I write books and articles about the kinds of science I went back to school to study. It’s been fun, particularly when I run across great achievements by former classmates and professors.

Alan is, of course, PI of New Horizons,  served a stint at NASA, and is the guiding energy behind the teams. Fran continues to work on spacecraft missions as well as teaching at CU, and Mihaly continues his research at LASP. It just pleases me no end to know these people and cheer them on in this great endeavor!

The Human Face of Pluto Exploration

Earlier today, I listened in on a press conference where Alan Stern, Jim Green, and Glen Fountain described the recovery effort for New Horizons. Alan pointed out that “you really have to be into delayed gratification on this mission.” That’s incredibly true. The entire team is made up of people who signed for the long haul, know the value of planning a mission to the Nth degree, and then sticking to that mission plan during the nearly ten years it has been “on the road” since launch.

New Horizons started a LOT longer ago than launch. Back in 1995, when I was writing  my first book about Hubble Space Telescope (a best-seller called Hubble Vision), I learned just HOW far back mission planning can go. In HST’s case, it literally went back decades before launch. Later on, I when I dug into the mission planning for such efforts as the Voyagers, Galileo, Cassini, and so on, I learned the complexities that go along with sending a spacecraft on a one-way mission to the outer solar system. It ain’t no quick jaunt.

The same is true for New Horizons. It may have launched in 2006, but its birth dates back to at least the late 1980s or early 1990s. It’s also not just a mission with three or four people. The team is big. There are scientists, students, programmers, launch experts, orbital dynamics whizzes, Deep Space Network controllers, NASA PR pros, support people at the Applied Physics Lab, and many others.  Hundreds, if not thousands, of people are or have been involved. The work for all these people began at least a decade earlier than the 2006 launch. Many team members have literally spent their working careers on this mission, and like so many others, it will be the defining moment of their scientific careers.

When you sign up for a mission, not only do you sign up for the launch, the flyby, the glory and the acclaim, but you also get other things:

  • Proposals to NASA written, rejected, rewritten, argued for, rewritten again;
  • Lots of travel, being on the road for team meetings;
  • Spacecraft parts testing, retesting, and testing again;
  • Generating computer code — LOTS of computer code;
  • Getting on yet another flight to another meeting;
  • Budget planning;
  • Science planning;
  • Launch planning;
  • Team meetings, team rehearsals, testing mockups, then testing the real pieces of the spacecraft;
  • Spacecraft assembly;
  • Launch!

And then there are the long years of the mission that have brought them to this moment, this time, when the goal is literally in sight. Theirs is an incredibly human story, and what I’ve talked about here is only a small peek into the lives of those who are involved. The public side is easy to see. The private one, not so much. One team member told me of missing important parts of family life — children’s achievements and events — while working on New Horizons. Space doesn’t wait, and orbital mechanics don’t change on the whim of a human’s desires. Yet, they did everything they could to make family life a priority, too, even while the secrets of the outer solar system beckoned.

Not that I am surprised by any of this. Science is a human endeavor. I learned during my years on the Hubble GHRS team that life goes on while you explore the cosmos. Team members get married, have kids, get divorced, get cancer, their pets die, they experience deaths in the family, they suffer accidents, they attend children’s plays, concerts, weddings, and they celebrate grandchildren being born. All those things happen while you have your eyes on the universe. Not only on GHRS, but on New Horizons and other missions and astronomy projects, I’ve watched friends and colleagues achieve these great things, advancing human knowledge in ways we could only dream about even 50 years ago, and trying to live normal human lives.

Next week, I will be at Applied Physics Lab with my friends and former colleagues. I’ll be there as press covering the story, sharing the story with my readers, and seeing reporters I’ve worked beside several times before. But, I’m also a guest of the mission, there to celebrate with my planetary science friends as they show us what Pluto is REALLY like. There will be many VIPs there, as well as other “friends” of the mission and probably a lot of people I worked with back in grad school. It’ll be a great time to see some of my former colleagues in science. I’m looking forward to it and I’m pleased to be invited.

It’s not every day you get to celebrate the exploration of a distant planet with your friends. I’m just darned proud to know them, and to write about their team’s great achievements with New Horizons.

Scientists Have NOT Discovered Life on Comet 67P

Speculation Runs Rampant in the Face of Facts

UP close and personal with Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.  Courtesy Rosetta/ESA.

UP close and personal with Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Physical processes are creating these surface features. Courtesy ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

I know it’s very tantalizing to fantasize about life on other worlds, or think about comets and asteroids strewing life-seeds around the planets as they go around the Sun. It’s fuel for hours of fun discussion at cocktail parties, and there’s some serious science going on investigating these possibilities.

But, come on, these stories in the mainstream media, fed by a press release that should have never have escaped from the Royal Astronomical Society reporting on what astrobiologists Max Wallis and Chandra Wickramasinghe speculated about Comet 67P are just plain wrong.

Let me put it plainly. There has been NO life found on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. None.  Scientists have found all kinds of very cool and amazing surface features, and have been witnessing jets carving up the surface. But, they haven’t found life there, no matter how much a pair of eminent scientists want to speculate differently.

What Does the Team Say?

If the Rosetta team mission scientists had found life — and none of their instruments are built to detect the kind of life being suggested exists there — they’d be talking it up big time right now. But the team can’t and in fact, has come out saying that finding any life on the comet as “highly unlikely.” And that’s as it should be. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof, which doesn’t exist. And, these stories are just not doing justice to the actual real science of astrobiology, which also requires the same rigorous proof as other disciplines.

The articles I’ve seen are reporting on the commentary of two scientists who not on the Rosetta mission. These are two people who have been long active in the search for life elsewhere. They made some suggestions that the presence of organics on the comet are evidence of some kind of action by micro-organisms. They have nothing to prove their suggestions, but that hasn’t stopped the press, led by the Guardian, to run wild with a “LIFE FOUND!!!” story. (To be fair, the Guardian has now published a more sensible article.)

Despite what the actual Rosetta mission scientists have said — and you’d think they’d be the most qualified to speak about the comet they’re actually studying, right? — some journalists have just taken the press conference as dictation and published stories conflating”carbon-rich compound” and “organic molecules” with “life”.  Not quite, folks. They’re precursors, but they aren’t life. Something which escaped the notice of the writers of the clickbait stories I’ve seen floating around.

Finding Life Tantalizes Us

Now, since all life is chemical, finding organic compounds (also made up of chemicals) necessary to create life is important. And, there ARE organics on the comet. In fact, they’re all over the solar system, including comets. That makes them quite common. But, carbon-rich organic compounds aren’t living beings, any more than a mixture of water and clay is a living being.

Finding them on Comet 67P is NOT the same as finding life there. It’s like saying, “There’s water on that planet, so there must be life.” Water doesn’t equal life any more than carbon-based dust does. It’s part of the environment that might be hospitable for life, but it’s not life.

What the Comet Actually Shows Us

Active regions in an area called "Seth" on Comet 67P. These semi-circular pits are areas where active jets have been spotted.  Courtesy: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

Active regions in an area called “Seth” on Comet 67P. These semi-circular pits are areas where active jets have been spotted. Courtesy: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

There are some pretty interesting features on the surface of 67P, but most of them are explained by dust jets, dust deposition, sublimation of ices off the surface, and so on. To claim, without evidence — that microbial life, which hasn’t been found anywhere but Earth (so far) — has anything to do with mini pits, surface etchings, and  boulders on the surface of the planet. Since we know the chemical composition of the comet’s surface, it’s best to go with the explanations that work for that complex mix of gases, ices, and dust.

To be honest, the best possible explanations for the surface features on the comet come from studying the processes at work on the materials already there. Those are processes such as sublimation and solar heating, which leads to jets cutting through the mix of ices and dust that make up the comet. Those processes that act on ices and dust in a vacuum can easily explain what we’re seeing. No need to invoke life, which requires another magnitude of complexity and a lot of other chemistry that hasn’t been detected there.

I really do get tired of these stories from the “mainstream media” that pick up little interview bits with scientists but don’t bother to check the facts or ask the tough questions. The writers who posted the original story (based on a press release) just accepted everything at face value and ran with a wildly screaming “LIFE on a COMET!!!” story.  It sells papers and views on web sites, but it’s click bait journalism and does no one any favors. (Well, it sells ads, but that’s not why we do science, folks.)

The story of Rosetta at Comet 67P is cool already, we don’t need jazzed up headlines falsely implying life on the comet to sell clicks to interest the public.