Nearly 200 Cornell students and faculty members gathered in Schwartz Auditorium Wednesday, to hear Cathy Olkin and Ann Harch — two lead scientists on NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, which flew by Pluto this July — give one of the earliest public presentations about the mission’s history and results.
Olkin began the talk by emphasizing the necessity of flying a spacecraft by Pluto, rather than simply observing the dwarf planet from Earth.
“This was the best image we had of Pluto at the beginning of this year,” she said, showing a picture of a pixelated white dot. “I spent decades studying this point of light.”
According to Harch, even though New Horizons passed by Pluto quickly, it was able to take pictures, determine the composition of the planet’s surface and atmosphere and gather data about its moons.
However, getting New Horizons to Pluto was not easy. Harch discussed problems that the New Horizons team faced in planning the mission, including how to aim the spacecraft at Pluto and determining where the planet was in space.
“You can’t tell where these objects are [when they are very far away],” Harch said. “Three days from Pluto, you can actually get that uncertainty down to a much more manageable size.”
Scientists handled this problem by sending the probe repeated corrections for Pluto’s position, Harch said.
Olkin talked about the spacecraft’s major findings, including hydrocarbons irradiated by sunlight, a glacier of non-water ices, possible cryovolcanoes and a hazy, blue atmosphere. She highlighted how new this information was, adding that scientists have not yet developed explanations for most of the phenomena observed on Pluto.
“What you’re seeing is science in action. We don’t know every answer yet,” Olkin said. “I can give you my best guess, and we’re going to get more information and continue to evolve and learn this story.”
Although New Horizons’s main objective has been completed, the team hopes to receive approval for a second mission, according to Olkin.
“The spacecraft is continuing to take measurements [of its environment],” Olkin said. “We’re looking forward to a potential extended mission … We hope to fly by a small target called 2014MU69, a relatively small Kuiper Belt object.”
Harch and Olkin continually emphasized that the mission’s success was a result of the combined efforts of multiple teams.
“There was a lot of interesting science, but it was also the product of a lot of hard teamwork,” Olkin said.
Students expressed excitement about the talk’s accessibility and being able to understand the significance of the mission’s findings.
“I saw the pictures earlier, through the internet, but having someone actually explain and analyze what’s going on is amazing,” said Rushaniya Fazli ’18. “You don’t realize how much you miss if you just look at them.”
Fazli added that she had also developed a better appreciation for the work that the New Horizons team put into the mission.
“It’s mind-blowing how much they have done using the [technology they had] back then,” Fazli said.