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Eating breakfast with Pluto and Neil deGrasse Tyson

Eating breakfast with Pluto and Neil deGrasse Tyson

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What it was like watching the New Horizons fly by with a bunch of planetary scientists

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Loren Grush

It’s 6:45AM, and I’m seated inside the Lefrak Theatre at the American Museum of Natural History, with more than 500 people. It’s early, but the auditorium is overflowing. We’re about to have breakfast with some pretty big planetary celebrities, including Neil deGrasse Tyson; Denton Ebel, chair of the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences; and director of astrovisualization Carter Emmart.

But the real guest of honor is Pluto. After a nine-year trek through our Solar System, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft will make its closest approach to the dwarf planet while we’re having our breakfast — coming within just 7,800 miles. That may seem like a long way off, but the probe has covered a total distance of over 3 billion miles to get to Pluto. Think of it like this: sending such a tiny probe to a small point of space so far away is like hitting a hole-in-one from New York to Los Angeles. It’s also the first time humans will explore and study Pluto — and we are all going to bask in the moment together.

Sending such a tiny probe to a small point of space so far away is like hitting a hole-in-one from New York to Los Angeles

Of course, none of us are actually going to see the flyby; there’s no interplanetary production team camped out at the far reaches of our Solar System to capture the view. But we do have a real-time 3D visualization of New Horizons passing through the Pluto system. The huge IMAX screen in front of us shows exactly where New Horizons is located relative to Pluto (and its main moon Charon), as well as the relative location of the Sun and neighboring stars. We may not be able to witness the event firsthand, but we can guess what it looks like.

Tyson, Emmart, and Ebel sit at a table in front of the screen; they walk us through the science of the mission and what to expect in the hours to come. They discuss the nitrogen rapidly escaping from Pluto’s atmosphere, and Ebel talks about how the world might be home to cryovolcanoes. "Come on, ice volcanoes," Tyson says to Ebel, as the crowd laughs. "Learn to communicate."

Also with us — albeit digitally — are planetary scientists and engineers from Australia, Sweden, Germany, and Ghana, appearing on two large monitors via a Google Hangout link. Tyson and company pose fans’ questions to the engineers at NASA’s Applied Physics Laboratory in Baltimore, Maryland, such as how fast New Horizons is traveling or what’s going to happen to it when it passes by Pluto. That’s not the end of the road, though — after the spacecraft passes Pluto, it will send us data for the next 16 months.

"It’s happening; it’s actually happening."

The researchers show us the 3D visualization with the attitude of children who are about to open a big Christmas present. They point out the visualization’s ability to show us in real time the exact portions of Pluto that are being photographed by New Horizons. "This is incredibly exciting," Orkan Umurhan, a post-doctoral researcher at NASA, says. "It’s happening; it’s actually happening." The crowd bursts into applause.
The irony of Tyson hosting an event about Pluto is not lost on the crowd: the Hayden Planetarium director is famous for his involvement in helping to reclassify the rock as a dwarf planet. Both Emhart and Ebel make quips about this to Tyson, even mentioning how some believe the flyby will help promote the dwarf planet back to full planet status. Tyson sarcastically makes clear his doubts that this will happen. But he’s excited, too. "This is a special moment," Tyson says. "This is a special day."

Soon, it’s time for the moment we’ve been waiting for, and at 7:49AM ET, Emmart triumphantly declares, "That’s it! We’re at closest approach." At the edge of our Solar System, there’s a tiny space probe zooming by a dwarf planet we’ve barely seen. The crowd goes nuts.

The researchers’ delight quickly transforms into cautious optimism. After all, the special moment we just celebrated may not have occurred at all. Currently, New Horizons is in a communication blackout; all of its instruments are focused on gathering as much data as possible about Pluto. We won’t know until 8:53PM ET tonight — when New Horizons sends back the "all clear" signal to NASA — if it actually flew by Pluto. NASA estimates there’s a one in 10,000 chance of mission failure due to nearby debris or dust hitting the spacecraft.

In the auditorium, that possibility seems remote. Everyone’s grinning foolishly — including me. My heart flutters to be surrounded by so many people who are genuinely excited about NASA and science. It’s an incredible feeling to be among fellow space dorks. This flyby is the last time any of us will see a planet in our Solar System for the first time; it was a joyous thing to share.