As Bill said when he introduced the science panel to present the first encounter results:
“Mind. Blown.”

It was certainly how we felt when what Alan Stern had been calling the “New York Times Dataset” (the first clearly resolved flyby images) did in fact go up on the front page of the New York Times, just like it had always been there. The mission was beautifully, perfectly on target, flown through every keyhole and with all instruments performing to spec. The team could see that the data storage devices were full of just the right amounts of data; could it be possible that it was time to let out the breath?

Orkan and Jeff

It felt surreal, beautiful. Above, Jeff Moore, with Orkan standing by (probably Tweeting a photo of it). If you know anyone who has an extra copy of this issue, by the way, we would love to send it on to one of the science team who wasn’t able to get one – leave a comment if you have one to give!

Bill’s been interviewed for many things, and people email or Facebook and say, “I saw Bill on TV!” but we’ve seen almost nothing – we’ve just been living, and not watching the news beyond the official press conferences and data releases.

He’ll be giving the Geology & Geophysics summary for the final presser this Friday, which is is nice. He’s a good choice to open and close the show, being sensible, senior, and very synthesis-minded.

Pluto Data Down

Team, family, friends and media gathered in the auditorium of the Kossiakoff Center at APL to view the first data down from the flyby

So many features on Pluto or Charon can be understood in the context of other features on other planets, moons, asteroids or comets that humankind has gone to great effort to study, to comprehend. Each timestep in our advancement is on the shoulders of previous effort.


photo by Michael Soluri /APL

Everyone is leaking around the mental edges, there is so much high-test fuel going in. I feel periodically like a garden snake that accidentally swallowed a giant ball of something. It has to untendril in foreground before it can all sink in. Much is lost to the experience; we try to take notes, but we mostly fail.

The past week has been whirly; Bill’s been mostly with the science team, and I’ve been with the media, or working, seeing friends. It’s nice to be able to hop a train and go into DC, or walk over to lunch from APL. There is a great Italian restaurant just a block away.

people I love Pluto encounter

At Italian lunch with Don Davis, Emily Lakadawalla, Dave Grinspoon, Jennifer Goldspoon, Carter Emmart, David, Pam, Fran Bagenal and others

Don Davis and Carter Emmart Pluto Encounter

Don Davis and Carter Emmart

Godfather Team

A Godfatherish looking dinner in DC with Jeff Moore, Alan Howard, the Spencers, Pam, Bill, Orkan, Dave and Jennifer.
Kelly Beatty and Kate McKinnon pluto encounter

Kelly Beatty, science writer and reporter, and I, during one of the pressers in the K Center auditorium

liam rocket engine

Liam at the launch of the spacecraft, which looked like this (photo by Ben Cooper)


we have no idea whose car this is, do you?

Mr Mars

Below, the gorgeous Pam Engebretson with Don Davis, space artist

Pam Engebretson and Don Davis

A few days ago, a particularly apt cartoon began spreading like a virus on the Internets, and the dig was justly earned by Tyson when he gave an interview (after seeing the glorious and entirely planetary surfaces of Pluto) reminding us all that Pluto is not a planet in his solar system.

Which is nice, because that means he must be moving to a different one. Click the image to see the full (and much ruder) four-panel cartoon with credits. Honestly, I like it better just like this. It says it all.
Screen Shot 2015-07-17 at 2.09.43 PM

All sorts of impressive individuals are around, and so there is someone for almost anyone to fangirl or fanboy on. I was most excited to meet Yanping Guo, who did the trajectory calculations and design, and Alex Parker, who did some of my favorite data visualizations. Check out his page. I won’t shut up about how much I love his Beyond Neptune. Painted Stone is Alex’s current favorite.

Also awesome was sitting behind Buzz Aldrin during the first day’s science presentations, and seeing Brian May (astrophysicist and guitarist for Queen) here at APL for the last two days. It was thrilling for me, as I’m a fan – I’ve always liked it that he was a scientist as well as one of my favorite guitarists. Shoutout to Pam Engebretson for arranging it with Brian.

He spoke briefly yesterday to a hall packed with families and Pluto fans, and said that when he was advised to choose between science and music when he was a kid, he just said, “Why?” ignored them, and did both. He encouraged everyone to follow their dreams.

Brian May Keep Your Dreams Pluto Encounter

Sitting between two rock stars. I invited Kyle down for a photoshoot, which is being turned into a really cool piece that will likely run tomorrow – I’ll post a link when it’s up.

Brian May, Kate McKinnon and Kyle Cassidy at Pluto Encounter

Brian is here as a scientist, an enthusiast, and he’s got plenty to contribute (you should see his gorgeous little OWL 3-D stereo viewer). He missed the encounter, but that was only because he stayed in England to stand up for animal rights, which I love him for.

Dave and Paul Pluto

David and Paul Schenk, playing with Alan’s flags at the Flyby countdown, photo Bri Date

It was hard for us to take the flags too seriously. I hugely appreciate the US for footing the bill for the mission, but of course the American government has also perped so much misery and needless expense of war that sending science crafts to space is frankly the least they can do.

And because I do feel so deeply un-nationalistic about scientific achievement, I was deeply touched to see that two of the first three main geologic features on Pluto were named for explorers from across Terra; Pluto now sports Sputnik Planum as the name for the mysterious ice plains in the heart-shaped feature, and the tall ice mountains nearby have been called the Norgay Montes, after Tenzing Norgay, the Nepalese Sherpa mountaineer who lead Sir Edmund Hillary’s team up Everest.

Thank you Jeff Moore and the team  for nudging those public-suggested names into such elegant spaces on the planet.

MORE SOON… to quote Leslie Young, deputy project scientist of the mission, “Squee!!”

ALSO: don’t miss Don Davis’s lovely writeup of his experiences… first firefly, first look at Pluto.

Kate and Don Davis

5 thoughts on “Plutonauts

  1. Thank You Kate for the insider’s view to Plutopalooza’s goings on! I treasure your info. & viewpoint!

  2. I spent this past week with my extremely intelligent and science minded Dad. I can’t even tell you what fun and joy to watch cable TV science shows, see Bill being all brilliant and handsome, and squeal “I know him!!!!”
    Watching and experiencing through your words and pictures has been magical!!!

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