An interview with Dr. Henry Throop

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.

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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.


AS: If you are given a chance to redefine the planet, how would you define it?

HT: If you look at what’s happening on Pluto, you look at how active it is, you look at how dynamic and young it is, it is clearly the physics that is happening on Pluto is so much more interesting, more active than on many of the planets in our solar system, such as Mercury, which is kind of at the other end of the spectrum. It is a small planet but it has been dead for a long time. I think the amount of physics, the amount of activity that is happening on the body certainly has some importance to it. By those means, Pluto is much more interesting than many other planets.

AS: How challenging was it to discover something like Pluto’s smallest moon, Styx?

HT: So my involvement with discovering Pluto’s moon Styx is that I was one of about a dozen members on the team. There was one person who actually was looking through the images and found it. That was a different person. It wasn’t me. But all these things are and much of the astronomy is a team effort. My contribution was in helping write the proposal and assess and estimate the amount of dust that we would see at Pluto. In fact, what this proposal was looking for, we were looking more for dust than looking for moons in the first place. So sometimes we are surprised by what we see. Finding the moon there was a little bit of a surprise.

AS: What was your role in NASA’s New Horizon’s mission and how important do you think was New Horizons flyby of Pluto?

HT: So my role, I am a member of the science team on the New Horizon’s mission, along with maybe  50 other scientists or so. I have been involved since about the start of the mission, since it was selected by NASA. I have been involved with seeing the spacecraft through its construction and testing on the ground, planning a lot of the observations in the system, specifically when the spacecraft searches for rings and searches for new moons around Pluto, and then analyzing that data. What’s great about New Horizon’s, I mean it’s the first time we’ve been to this region of the outer solar system, first time we’ve been to this kind of third class of planets, these icy planets. What we find is so totally different than we expected to find. It’s fascinating and it’s been baffling and confounding to a lot of our ideas of  what we would actually find there.

AS: You truly are a global astronomer. I’m saying this because you seems to be working with many countries. You started in the US and moved to Mexico and  later to South Africa and now in India. Is this part of your job or any personal motto behind it and where do you think you’ll end  up next?

HT: I’ve spent a couple of years in Mexico and then we spent a couple of years in Washington DC, and then 3 years in South Africa. I’ve been here for about a year and a half in India. Our family has been moving around. My spouse has a job which has taken her around to different countries and I’ve been fortunate enough to both come with and continue my involvement with a lot of NASA missions before this time. It has been really exciting to take advantage of that and come to places like Trichy, all across India, all across South Africa and interact with the students and the faculty and the public, in rural areas, in urban areas and see the astronomies happening there and talk with so many of the students who are going to be the next generation of astronomers.

AS: Can you give us insights on your work here in India?

HT: In India, I have been fortunate to interact with many astronomers, many students, many scientists, many members of the public in India. I have been teaching in St Xaviers College in Mumbai for the last couple of months on ‘Solar System and Exoplanets’ where we are focusing on just the really exciting new topics in astronomy, looking for life in the solar system, looking for other planets and other stars, spacecraft exploration of the solar system from NASA spacecrafts, from ISRO spacecrafts, the Mars Orbiter Mission, the Astrosat, which is doing fantastic observation of the cosmos. There is so much astronomy going on in India. There is so much science which is building in India. It has been really exciting to be a part of that.

AS: Do you have any message or tips for aspiring astronomers? As an amateur astronomer, what are the ways one can contribute to the planetary science and other research?

HT: There is a lot of contributions that an amateur astronomer really can make. One of these areas in particular is in studies of NEAs, which are Near Earth Asteroids. These are asteroids which potentially come close enough to the Earth to impact and be hazardous. It’s much the same way the K/T impacted, that’s the one that killed off the dinosaurs, K/T for Cretaceous-Tertiary. That was a dangerous time for life on the Earth and there are studies that amateurs can do on these asteroids. There are thousands of them that have not been well studied and can be well studied by amateurs using modest telescopes, larger than some amateur telescopes but a lot smaller than you know, you don’t need a meter sized professional telescope to study these things.

AS: Our magazine “Beyond Earth” is an effort to convey the complex space science in a simple way, so that everyone with basic education can understand and update themselves with the updating universe. Any suggestions/advice for us?

HT: I think that mission statement is fantastic. There are so many people in India and elsewhere who are so interested in exploring the world around us, both locally on Earth, in the solar system and throughout the galaxy and I think that anything that contributes to that mission and gets people engaged and curious about exploring the world around them seems fantastic so I think your mission is a really good one. I encourage everything you can do to succeed in bringing the mission forward.

AS: We also host star parties. So, please do visit Hyderabad and let us know. It would be an honour for us to have you at our star party!

HT: That would be fantastic. Thank you. I was actually in Hyderabad two weeks ago. There was an astronomy workshop at a planetarium in Hyderabad. There is much going on there. Maybe I missed out on this opportunity. But, let me know if anything in future.

NIT: We went through your LinkedIn profile, just out of curiosity. I saw that you worked as a tea taster in your initial years. We wanna know, why tea tasting?

HT: (Laughs) Yes, that is correct. I did work as a  tea taster for a very short period at a tea company  in Boulder, Colorado called Celestial Seasonings. It was not a full time job, let me just clarify. But occasionally they would call me up and say “Hey, we have new samples of tea that we would like to review.” Mostly, they do the herbal teas at this company. It is a well known company in the US and so I thought it was interesting that they would ask me so I signed up for it.

Our sincere thanks to the team ‘Pragyan at NIT-Trichy’ for this wonderful opportunity. Dr. Throop is really a true man of Cosmos. His talk surely has inspired us to do more..!


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