We all grew up learning there are nine planets in our solar system and tried memorizing the order using the mnemonics like MVEMJSUNP (My Very Educated Mother Just Showed Us Nine Planets). But in 2006, astronomers voted that Pluto would no longer be considered a planet, demoting it to the status of “Dwarf Planet.” Early that same year, the New Horizons spacecraft was launched by NASA, beginning a 3-billion mile journey to Pluto. After a decade in space flight, New Horizons truly lived up to its expectations and sent us very first images of Pluto and its moons in 2015. A mission like New Horizons is a collaborative effort, involving an extremely diverse group of Scientists, Engineers, Computer programmers, Analysts, and Testers. One member of the New Horizons team is Planetary Scientist Dr. Henry Throop.
Dr. Throop was involved with the calibration of instruments on board New Horizons, including the infrared spectrometer, which measures energy that is given off in the infrared wavelength. Since launch, he has been involved with planning observations, specifically those looking for new moons or rings of Pluto which resulted in discovering Pluto’s smallest moon ‘Styx’ in 2012. Wow! that sounds great, isn’t it..? Lets discover more on the professional and personal journey of Dr. Throop through his guest lecture and exclusive interview he gave to AstroSoc at Pragyan Tech Fest: NIT-Trichy.
The guest lecture by Henry Throop took place inside a packed Auditorium, with over 200 enthusiastic students listening to the lecture intently. Throop was an experienced speaker who also infused humorous elements into his talk. He made sure that the session was interactive with the help of a presentation filled with interesting images and videos. He spoke in detail about the New Horizon’s mission. After giving a brief introduction to the solar system, he gradually described the process behind the mission. From the launch of the spacecraft to its trajectory, Throop was able to provide insightful information, being an integral scientist in the mission.
He also mentioned his love for Pluto and how he wouldn’t have been here if it weren’t for the dwarf planet. Besides the success of the mission, he narrated the problems the mission had to face and how his team tackled them. One such problem that they faced was when the spacecraft shut down unexpectedly for two days. The team was able to rectify the problem by identifying that the spacecraft could not perform two functions simultaneously as it was taxing the CPU. He also showed the audience the high resolution true colour pictures that were taken from the mission.
Drawing conclusions from these images, he went on to describe the surface of Pluto meticulously and how most of his predictions were wrong. Because, Pluto was predicted to be boring rocky sphere covered with impact craters, but surprisingly Pluto is an active changing world, with flowing glaciers and infant mountains. Adding more to the surprise it was discovered that, Pluto has not just one, but five moons. As we mentioned earlier our guest Dr. Throop also happened to be a co-discoverer of one of those moons (Styx). The mission doesn’t end at Pluto though, and Throop described the future plans for the mission. The spacecraft will explore the outer solar system as it sails through the Kuiper belt. Pluto didn’t turn out to look anything like what we anticipated it would! So, the Kuiper belt objects we fly past could look like small Pluto’s, or they could look nothing like them and we’ll be surprised again! After all, the universe we live in ends up giving surprises every time we discover something new and throw more questions at us!
After his incredible lecture, AstroSoc’s magazine ‘Beyond Earth’ along with group of space enthusiasts from NIT, got a chance to talk with him more personally, and ask him questions on a plethora of topics. He answered all the questions very patiently. “Dr. Throop turned out to be one of the most enthusiastic men I’ve ever met, and his love for the subject and his charisma led to some very enlightening discussions.” writes Venkatraman (an astronomy enthusiast from campus) in his blog.
I N T E R V I E W
NIT: How was your stay in Trichy and your experience in Pragyan so far?
Henry Throop: Trichy is a beautiful place and it’s wonderful being here on the campus at NIT. The interaction with the students has been fantastic. It is such a great festival. So happy to be here. There is so much energy coming from the students and the festival is organized so well. You have some fantastic exhibitions and programs and competitions for the students and speakers. It is really cool to see all this activity.
AstroSoc: What inspired you to take Astronomy as a profession and what do you think is the most astounding thing about the Cosmos?
HT: I am doing astronomy because I think it is interesting and also fun. I am very lucky to be able to do this. I have always been curious and exploring, learning new things and doing new things and I ended up in this field where I can do that, and also interact with other people, like those who in the future will be doing space exploration and doing research. To be able to talk with them and show them how cool it is to explore the world around us and explain it better than we could a decade ago, or a century ago. Do what you’re going to enjoy most: something that makes you happy and fulfills your curiosity.
AS: In 2006, astronomers voted that Pluto would no longer be considered a planet, demoting it to the status of “dwarf planet”. Early that same year, the New Horizons spacecraft was launched. Couldn’t we wait for a decade to see what spacecraft is telling about it and come up with more scientific way to define a planet? Your comments?
HT: Ha..Ha..ya…You are totally right! I mean, this is the IAU, the International Astronomical Union. They infact, did have a vote on it and they totally jumped the gun on it. I think that if the entire astronomical community would have that discussion now, after seeing what is at Pluto and put it into the context, I think that the decision would come out very differently. Honestly, even now, there are so many people who disagree with that decision. It’s not particularly, it’s in no means a universal decision that all of us agree on. I think that many many astronomers, including myself, and many many other members of the Horizon’s team certainly don’t think too much of the classification system. This is how it works. You know, It is going to be revised again and again and again. Our knowledge of the word planet keeps changing over time. This is just one of those times that it has changed. In the past, it is meant so many other different things like planets and stars and asteroids and moons of other planets. It’s going to keep changing as we know more and more about the solar system.