Alan Stern shares spectacular experiences of the first flyby of Pluto at the Annual Duncan Lecture
More than 160 people attended this year’s Duncan Lecture on Oct. 4 to hear from Alan Stern, who has participated in 29 NASA and European Space Agency missions. He is the primary investigator of the New Horizons mission which launched in 2006 and completed the first flyby of Pluto in 2015.
The New Horizons mission has provided images of Pluto and its moons that had never been possible to capture before.
“New Horizons is my absolute favorite mission because it goes out to the frontier of the solar system and a new class of planet,” Stern said.
Pluto is a new class of plant, a third class of planetary bodies called a dwarf planet, which is smaller than the eight classical planets.
“Only by going there can we explore,” he said.
Stern welcomed the faculty, staff and students attending this year’s Duncan Lecture. He has always been interested in space since a young child.
“All I wanted to do growing up was be involved with space exploration and space science,” he explained.
Stern’s career has been filled with major space milestones. However, his journey to Pluto impressed students and researchers in the Science Center Auditorium.
The New Horizons mission is approximately the size of a baby grand piano and weighs about 1,000 pounds,” Stern said. “It is powered by a nuclear generator and completed a half billion miles in just 13 months.”
The craft flew a million miles a day for eight years. It flew past Jupiter, Uranus, and Neptune.
Then in 2015, the New Horizons mission was able to obtain images and data that no one has ever seen or recorded before.
Scientists simply could not get an up-close image with intricate detail even with the Hubble Space Telescope.
“We need quality, high-resolution images to understand the origin and evolution of planets,” said Stern.
The New Horizons mission included flash memory drives to record the data, which took 16 months to send the data back.
“Our goal was to arrive within plus or minus 450 seconds of the original plan when the spacecraft left planet Earth,” said Stern. “We were 86 seconds early and the results were spectacular.”
He and a team of dedicated scientists worked on the entire project from start to finish.
“Working as a team, we flew a spacecraft that we built and explored the farthest worlds in space history,” Stern said.
After the images of Pluto were released, more than 500 newspapers featured this story on their cover above the fold. They story was on every paper on all seven continents—Pluto went around the entire world. It appeared on magazine covers and even a Google Doodle.
New Horizons wasn’t done.
After recoding the data and images of Pluto, New Horizons was still out there flying being powered by that self-contained nuclear generator.
In 2019, New Horizons completed a flyby of Arrokoth, a planetesimal or body that was formed in the Kuiper Belt, which is beyond Neptune’s orbit. It is much smaller than Pluto and has a strange shape, consisting of two flattened lobes.
“New Horizons settled that Arrokoth was built by low-speed collisions,” explained Stern.
And this mission is still out there. It is still flying and has the potential to record more data until its generator loses power.
Stern was not done either.
After his talk, he answered an array of questions in the auditorium and then had a line of undergraduate and graduate students waiting to ask him questions.
New Horizons captured unprecedented images during its mission and Stern inspired Auburn University students to continue the excitement of space exploration and to make their own impact through space.
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