New Horizons mission reaches Pluto with help of professor

It’s not everyday a professor makes a discovery that could rewrite the very textbooks he teaches from.

Mason astronomy professor Mike Summers did just that. On July 14, the New Horizons spacecraft made its closest approach to the Pluto/Charon system yet, with individuals from across the globe tuning in via television, radio and social media. Summers was part of the NASA team which made that happen.

After NASA called for proposals for a Pluto mission in 2001, Summers collaborated with other scientists to create the New Horizons mission. The goal was to build and launch a spacecraft capable of collecting data from the dwarf planet. Summers said everyone involved knew from the start it was “an enormous undertaking.” A five-year ordeal of constructing and testing the spacecraft ended in a successful launch of the mission on January 19, 2006.

Summers said they have already learned some unexpected things.

“The images of Pluto and Charon were astonishing and gave us some extraordinary surprises,” Summers noted. Charon is the largest of the five known moons of Pluto.

Among those surprises were a glacier in Pluto’s atmosphere measuring 1 million cubic kilometers, young – geologically speaking – surfaces of Pluto and Charon, and a “halo look” caused by reflections of particles in Pluto’s atmosphere appearing in images of the dwarf planet.

“When the flyby occurred we were making discoveries left and right,” said Summers. “And we were so incredibly surprised at what we found on Pluto and Charon. It was not like anything we expected.”

Less than 5 percent of the data is back from the spacecraft, so more discoveries have yet to be made.

Summers gave a talk at the Mason Observatory on August 31 at 7:30 p.m. titled “The New Horizons Mission to Pluto and Charon.”