Pluto as Planetary Coming of Age

This composite of enhanced color images of Pluto (lower right) and Charon (upper left), taken by NASA's New Horizons spacecraft on July 14, 2015, highlights the wide range of surface features on the small worlds. Working with the New Horizons mission team, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) has approved the themes to be used for naming the surface features on Pluto and its moons. (Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)

This composite of enhanced color images of Pluto (lower right) and Charon (upper left), taken by NASA's New Horizons spacecraft on July 14, 2015, highlights the wide range of surface features on the small worlds. Working with the New Horizons mission team, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) has approved the themes to be used for naming the surface features on Pluto and its moons. (Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)

Kirby Runyon cuts the figure of an astronaut, and you just know that he would be helpful in a bar fight, but you also get the impression that he would defuse things for you before it got that far. He is a young man and a newly-minted Ph.D., and with an abstract submitted to the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference late last March, stepped into a white-hot spotlight with an international audience. He and one of his co-authors, Alan Stern, the principal investigator on the New Horizons mission to Pluto, have taken a swing at the question of planethood.

Runyon’s definition of a planet is a single sentence in length: “A planet is a sub-stellar mass body that has never undergone nuclear fusion and that has enough gravitation to be round due to hydrostatic equilibrium regardless of its orbital parameters.” In other words, a planet is a ball in space that’s not a star. That means, yes, Pluto is a planet. It also means that the Moon is a planet. Europa is a planet. Ganymede is a planet.

In comparison, the newly-established definition of a planet by the International Astronomical Union states: “A planet is a celestial body that is in orbit around the Sun, has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape, and has cleared the neighborhood around its orbit.” In this regime, were Ganymede knocked from orbit around Jupiter and into orbit around the Sun, it would still be Ganymede, but might suddenly, according to the IAU, be a planet. At an instinctive level, this feels wrong, like saying that if a dog climbed onto a bookshelf, it would then be a cat. The astronomy view categorizes a planet based on what it orbits. Runyon’s assertion is that a planet should be defined by what it is.

What imbues Runyon’s definition with resilience is that it doesn’t seek to somehow overturn that of the IAU, and he has no intention of submitting it to the IAU for consideration. “If certain types of astronomers want to have an orbital dynamic definition of a planet,” he says, “and that’s useful to them, fine. But most scientist who study planets are more aligned now with the geosciences than they are with astronomical scientists. And that definition of ‘planet’ just isn’t useful to us. It doesn’t help us communicate our ideas.” Informally, planetary scientists have always called all sorts of bodies in space “planets.” But formally, too, in peer-reviewed literature, technical moons are called planets. Runyon lists scores of such references made both before and after the IAU redefinition.

This is in part about the coming of age of planetary science. It is a young field, a single generation old, the plucky upstart once the exclusive domain of physics, then of astronomy, but whose constituent sciences now include geology, chemistry, and biology. Mars was once something you look up at, a dot in the sky. Celestial. Now it’s something you look down on from orbit, or across from the surface. It’s terrestrial. Geophysical.

“Carl Sagan said, ‘In science there are no authorities; at most, there are experts,’” Runyon tells me as we talk outside the convention center where he presented abstract. This isn’t a heated argument, and he counts Mike Brown, the famed “Pluto Killer,” as a friendly correspondent. Let the astronomers do what they want, he explains brightly, but leave us—i.e., geologists—out of it. The concept isn’t even unique. “To astronomers studying the composition of stars and nebulae, especially stars, they call anything heavier than element number two―anything heavier than helium―a metal. That’s just a convenient word for them. No one’s fighting about this,” says Runyon. “They know what they mean when they say metal, and it’s different from the common definition. You take the spectra of stars, and you see there’s oxygen and nitrogen and argon in stars’ atmospheres, you call that a high metallicity star. And that’s fine. Metallurgists aren’t fighting them over the word metal.”

Kirby Runyon presents his research on Martian sand sheets. (Credit: Lunar and Planetary Institute)

Kirby Runyon presents his research on Martian sand sheets. (Credit: Lunar and Planetary Institute)

This matters beyond the arcane world of scientific abstracts and poster sessions. Very rarely does a scientific debate spill into the public sphere and draw not only keen interest, but steely opinions. Evolution, certainly. The age of the Earth in some religious circles. But you don’t often see finger-pointed assertions over scientific nomenclature. The Washington Post doesn’t give a thousand words to disagreements over the precise definition of “suevites” (a type of rock formed during impact events) though scientists do debate its usage. This matter of Pluto, however, is both consequential and easily understood. Everyone has their own take on whether it is a planet.

Under Runyon’s definition, there are at least 110 planets in the solar system. This seems at once absurd, but resolves into something very interesting. He explains that the idea of planets being something you must memorize is a pointless exercise. Memorizing the periodic table of elements doesn’t make one a chemist. But just as the table itself is elegant and informative, plot all the planets on a table and you get something equally elegant. Terrestrial planets, gas giant planets, ice giant planets, dwarf planets, exoplanets, each arranged and subgrouped with common characteristics. Europa so plotted might be categorized as an icy dwarf satellite planet.

And suddenly, rather than rote memorization, Mercury, Venus, Earth, and so on, you have an ambitious and quite possibly tectonic effect on education. Rather than eliminating things to learn―Pluto itself has been rendered ontologically unsound since the IAU announcement, disappearing not only from textbooks but also consumer goods and media―you have the introduction of worlds that rarely appear in the classroom, Makemake, Mimas, Miranda and more. The conversation about Pluto has arguably been a net positive for the public, whose idea of the solar system is too often limited to plastic beads on wires circling a light bulb.

An invested public with a robust science education is as important as ever before. Even with our pedestrian terrestrial political problems, it’s a good time to be a human being. We stand on a precipice of sorts, in which asteroids, planets―even stars―are accessible not only by scientists with instrument-laden spacecraft, but soon by the working man and woman. One easily imagines a real future in the lifetimes of our children in which “planet” relates not to hydrostatic equilibria or accretion disc formation, but by something inherently more utilitarian. Planet will be a shorthand for something vaguely accessible by humans and our tools for long durations. Somewhere useful. Somewhere with a horizon commensurate to that which the human mind has evolved to expect. Can I drive a shovel into the body and pull up raw materials? In plain science fiction terms, can I land my spaceship on it? Is it round and can I fly my gas mining barge through it?

In both the very short term and very long, what is or isn’t a planet is not particularly important. In the middle, however, in our present-day future in which dot-com billionaires want to put people in space, and not in capsules of three, but transports of hundreds, and they say this with authority and are investing the capital to make it a reality, suddenly “planet” is a word due to be handed back to the people. Given a better spacesuit, if I lived on Titan or Mars, is there a measurable difference in bodies? This land is your land.

How a Small NASA Mission Might Change the Course of Space Exploration

Resource Prospector rover ( NASA Advanced Exploration Systems )

Resource Prospector rover ( NASA Advanced Exploration Systems )

When explorers roamed the New World, they didn’t set foot on uncharted lands and unload from their ships lumber and food. They didn’t send for armadas back home, asking for fresh supplies to stay well fed and in warm beds. Rather, settlement required the necessities of life to be hewn or harvested, and what they unloaded from ships were tools and seed. It was called the Age of Discovery, but it was as well the age of cultivation, the age of construction, the age of contrivance, and, yes, the age of conquest.

We live today in the New Age of Discovery, with explorers like Alan Stern and Lindy Elkins in the roles of James Cook or Bartolomé, and New Horizons and Psyche are our plucky robotic vessels pressing forth into the unknown. As human spaceflight completes its interim retooling for its own push into the final frontier, the requirements for settlement remain unchanged from centuries gone by. You can’t bring with you everything you will need. Survival in the wilderness means subsistence farming and dogged resourcefulness. But how do you do that on another planet?

NASA’s working on it, and the first critical step is a project called Resource Prospector. If their plan works, humanity might one day look back on Resource Prospector as the mission that launched a thousand ships and forever changed the course of human exploration.

IN SITU

“The essence of humanity is to be explorers,” says Jacqueline Quinn, “but today we are bound by what we can carry on our backs—meaning what we can put on our rockets and send up. Until we cease that reliance, we will never break free.” It is obscenely expensive to lift things into space. The workhorse rocket used by NASA is the Atlas 5, which costs more than $10,000 per pound to lift something. The math alone renders impossible the dream of long-duration, large crewed exploration missions, let alone permanent ones.

The solution to this problem, Quinn tells me, is a process called in situ resource utilization. ISRU, as it is abbreviated, is the creation of usable commodities from extraterrestrial materials. You don’t fly bricks to the moon. You make them from lunar soil. You don’t fill a lake on Mars with water from Earth. You make it from elements on and in the Martian ground and sky. Need to fuel your spaceship for the ride back to Earth? All you need are carbon and hydrogen and the right machine to make methane. And so on. There’s a sense of daring to ISRU. It is a new kind of space travel. You’re exploring the solar system without taking everything you need. You’re setting stakes on another world with the intention to live off the land.

It makes sense, of course, and it sounds easy, but it’s never actually been done on another world, and is, in fact, very hard. Quinn, who is based from Kennedy Space Center, is the Resource Prospector payload project manager. She has spent the last decade helping to develop ISRU, and Resource Prospector is the outgrowth of those efforts. Its mission is to go to the moon, study the lunar soil, and determine how easily the water within can be accessed. Its heritage traces back to the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite mission in 2009, which discovered water in the south polar region of the moon in a permanently shadowed crater—that is, a crater that hasn’t seen sunlight in over a billion years due to the moon’s low tilt angle.

RP, as the team calls Resource Prospector with the sort of familiarity that Luke Skywalker has with R2, is a rover about the size of a golf cart. At a glance, its design suggests Pathfinder—that golden body, those strange wheels, that solar panel roof (though RP’s panels are steepled). The resemblance is fleeting, however, and the rovers are otherwise entirely different, as the massive vertical drill jutting from its core makes clear. This isn’t a robot made for passive observation. It’s not a tourist; it’s a miner, and when it lands, it has work to do. Those wheels (four rather than Pathfinder’s six) don’t just steer. They articulate. It can climb hills covered in soft soil. When RP is stuck in loose material, it can twist and lift its wheels and “army man crawl” to firmer ground. It’ll need that kind of mobility, too, because it’s designed to drive for kilometers across austere and uncharted lunarscape and into those permanently shadowed lands, where no human or robot has gone before.

ONE METER BELOW

The mission will work like this, according to Jim T. Smith, the lead systems engineer for payload on Resource Prospector. As the rover drives across the lunar surface, an onboard neutron spectrometer will collect data on the soil one to two meters in front of the rover, and one meter below the surface. This data will in turn be correlated with data already collected by previous missions to determine the distribution of hydrogen (including H2O ice) and other elements. (Where RP studies the moon at a “human scale,” orbital data has a much poorer resolution of 60 kilometers per pixel.)

“The first instrument we use is almost like a metal detector on a beach—a neutron spectrometer,” says Smith. “As we traverse the surface it is continually counting epithermal neutrons emanating from the moon. When we see the correct signal and we believe we’ve found a good hydrogen source, the rover is equipped with a drill capable of penetrating one meter down into the surface.” The drill can do two things: It can excavate material to the surface for inspection with a near infrared spectrometer. This will determine if there is water ice present or hydroxyl or whatever. The drill can also capture material at precise depths as far down as one meter and deliver it to individual crucibles, which are then heated by an Oxygen & Volatile Extraction Node (OVEN), which is an oven.

Quinn explains that the oven drives off the gasses, which are analyzed by a gas chromatograph mass spectrometer. It will quantify the constituents present. “Remember, we’re in almost perfect vacuum,” she says. “Being able to physically contain water in a mechanical device and get it into a sealed vessel, so those resources don’t sublime is as important as the original detection. The volatiles may be there, but if you can’t get ahold of them and put them in some sort of vessel, then it’s not doing you a whole hell of a lot of good.”

The last step in the process is perhaps the most poetic and will certainly have the greatest resonance with the largest number of people back on Earth. The vapor will be condensed on a cold finger, forming a water droplet, which RP will then image. The picture of a water droplet beamed back to Earth will mark a turning point in human exploration. Scientists will have drilled into another world, pulled up material, and extracted it as something we can use, something we need.

PARADIGM SHIFT

Resource Prospector is a pioneer in the sense that it is an explorer venturing into unknown territory, but also as it relates to the employment of technology. It will be the first NASA robotic mission to drill deeper than seven centimeters into an extraterrestrial body. It will be the first time we’ve driven into a permanently shadowed region on the moon. It will be the first time NASA has operated on a pole of the moon with a very low angle from which to collect sunlight for its panels, and from which to maintain communications back on Earth. It will be the first time humankind has created a usable commodity from raw material on an alien world. And it might prove to be the first mission to really kick off the commercial race to the lunar surface.

”This whole idea of utilizing the moon and its potential local resources to actually enable exploration architectures is the hot topic right now," says Daniel Andrews, the project manager for Resource Prospector at NASA Ames Research Center. “I can't tell you how many times I'm approached at conferences by commercial parties who say ‘I hope you guys really do get the answers you want from RP because I need them for a business plan that we're putting together.’”

Andrews has more than once been approached by entrepreneurs hoping to use lunar soil to make feedstock for 3D printing. “We’re talking concrete building materials,” he says, “including concrete!” Volatile material utilization is also on the agenda of many companies who hope to make water, usable oxygen, rocket fuel, and other things. Andrews foresees a time when companies are dropping ISRU pallets onto the surface of the moon and filling bottles with volatile-derived resources. “These companies would commoditize volatiles making them available to those who wish to buy it, including this space agency and others. This could be the beginning of a whole new paradigm.”

THE FUTURE

If fifteen years from now an astronaut sets foot on Mars, some might well look back and claim that Pathfinder started it all. It wasn’t the first mission on the ground. There were the Viking landers, of course, and a series of orbiters and flybys. Those missions, however, somehow belonged to antiquity, to a time of black and white televisions and the prospect of atomic annihilation in the Cold War. Pathfinder seemed to come out of nowhere—a mission of peace and wonder that captured the collective American imagination not just for Mars, but for all exploration beyond our little blue marble. It was the mission that allowed NASA to marshal its resources with the support of the people footing the bill. If there is a journey to Mars, Pathfinder was the first step.

Thirty years from now, when there is a moon village of scientists and explorers, and a thriving lunar industrial sector actually based on the moon, people might say, “It might have died with Apollo if not for a little robot called RP.” We harnessed the resources on this world to send a four-wheeled miner to another. And when it got there, it, in turn, harnessed resources it found there. It advanced the cycle. And when people saw water—not mysterious slope lineae or promises beneath an ice shell—but the pure stuff that might have flowed from a tap back home, they were ready. Water! That was the thing that made the public decide at last that we can go to other places. That beyond the colossal intellects of scientists and engineers, there’s something else out there to keep us alive—something ethereal and nourishing on a spiritual level: mother nature.

An Ode to the Livescribe Echo Smartpen

The Livescribe Echo Smartpen is a best friend to both journalists and students, and is one of the few devices in my arsenal that have made a measurable, positive impact on my career. I bought my pen in 2010, making it quite old in tech years, and while it is beginning to show its age (the digital screen no long lights sufficiently that I can read it), it has proven to be a workhorse and a staple of my satchel. When conducting an interview, I generally bring my pen, a spiral-bound Livescribe notebook, and also a small, Philips digital audio recorder, for redundancy. (I've yet to lose a single minute from either device due to technical problems, though we buy insurance not for what has happened, but for what might happen. And as an added benefit, on occasion one mic can clarify audio that is muddled on the other.) The way the Echo pen works is this. I take notes by hand in my Livescribe notebook. The pen records both the audio being spoken, but also the pen strokes as I write them in the notebook. When I later download a note-taking session to my computer, I can see my notes being written in real time as the audio plays. (This is super useful when drawing diagrams of things being explained.) But a computer isn't even necessary for the process, at any step, ever (save backups, which can go directly to Evernote, where handwritten notes are then made searchable—one of many Evernote miracles). Sans computer, you can also take only your little spiral-bound notebook and pen, go off somewhere, plug headphones into the pen (or just use the pen's speaker) and open the notebook. Tap the pen on any word of any note you've taken, and the pen will almost as if by magic begin playing the audio recorded at the exact moment you wrote said note. This is a game changer, and adds a level of prevision to notes and direct quotes that must surely be unparalleled in the history of notetaking.

Here is an Amazon link to the Livescribe 2 Echo. N.b. that I make no money on this link, as Louisiana is ineligible for affiliate linking.

Note further that I've said nothing about the much newer Livescribe 3, which I own, and despise, for the following reasons:

1. It is not self contained. If I want to use a Livescribe 3 pen, I have to have my phone present (which is not always possible depending on the security policies of institutions at which I conduct interviews), and more unnerving, I have to trust that Livescribe's general execrable software will not crash on my phone, midway through an interview, leaving me missing key parts of interviews. More importantly, such mission-critical failures force me to disrupt the flow of an interview in order to reload the app and fiddle with the pen to get things reconnected. This is simply a deal-breaker. Audio recorders can sometimes be ever-present warnings to interview subjects that You-Are-Being-Recorded-So-Hedge-Everything-You-Say-on-Penalty-of-Career-Suicide. (Not that I generally, if ever, ask such loaded questions, but when you're being recorded, every question can feel that way.) This risks leading to stilted, toothless, mealy answers. But not generally. Once an interview begins, I start the recorder, aim it, and within 10 minutes or so, it is usually forgotten because we are used to being surrounded by technology. Moreover, people generally focus only on a single thing or thought. During an interview, that single thing is the question at hand. The recorder thus melts into the table and is soon forgotten. But start fiddling with your fat pen and iPhone, and suddenly the recorder returns to the forefront, this time glowing in phosphorescence.

2. I am left-handed. The designers of the Livescribe 3 (smartly) rejected the weird Livescribe 2 cap in favor of a twist-to-extend-pentip model. So far, so good. But they positioned the twist-to-extend band in the dead center of the pen. If you're right handed, that's no problem. As you write, the downward pressure of the pen against your hand acts as a kind of locking mechanism keeping the pen extended. (The pen extends by twisting the band counterclockwise.) But if you are left handed, the downward pressure of the pen against you hand constantly twists the band clockwise, thus unlocking the pen and retracting it. The upshot is that every few paragraphs during furious note taking, the pen suddenly retracts and thus powers down and generally loses connection to the app, disrupting everything. (See point 1.)

3. It is a missed opportunity. The downside of the Livescribe Echo is its bulk. It's like writing with a fat Crayola marker. This is because it has to pack audio recording equipment within its shell. By outsourcing the audio stuff to the phone for the Livescribe 3, though, the new pen should have shrunken considerably, to something more in line with a Sharpie marker. Instead, and inexplicably, they went the opposite direction, making the Livescribe 3 more like a Magic Marker. Whether this was a design choice (though I cannot imagine how) or poor internal engineering, the result is all of the bad with none of the good. You lose the self-contained pen while gaining a fat pen relying on Livescribe's notoriously unreliable software.

I've not yet given up on the company, though, and hope that the Livescribe 4 addresses these issues by: 1. Returning the recording component of the device to the pen's internals, while 2. Taking advantage on 7+ years of technological advancement to shrink the internals to give us a pen closer in size to a traditional pen, and 3. Move the pen-tip-twist-extension to the top side of the pen, when one's handgrip does not result in inadvertent twists.

I will report back when the next pen is released.

How Defense Officials Spent $150 Million in Afghanistan, When They Could Have Spent $0

My latest piece for The Week ran yesterday, in which I write about the Task Force for Business and Stability Operations, a Defense Department office that was created to "do capitalism" in war zones. I don't want to spoil the ending, but they didn't do well and are presently under investigation for myriad accusations of fraud, waste, and abuse. The piece can be found here.

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As part of this little personal blog experiment, I thought I'd share a bit of my process for this type of story. Earlier this week, I received a heads up that the allegations were about to be made public, and I pitched a story on it to my editor at The Week. I chose The Week because I knew the story was a good fit, and because I've written several pieces for them about waste in Afghanistan. Also, I really enjoy working with Ben, my editor, who's a really smart guy and an all-around good human being. I also appreciate that he doesn't waste time with my pitches. The "yes" or "no" happens quickly. It's hard to overstate how rare this is for an editor, let alone one for a major publication.

N.b. that in general, I don't mind when someone rejects a pitch. There are times when I know I've got a good story, and that editors are mistaken in rejecting it, but I deserve a lot of the blame when that happens. It's easy to get lazy on a pitch—especially a "sure thing"—and I've done a lot of good stories a disservice by not selling them with proper care, and as a result, not selling them at all. I actually think I've gotten worse about this over the years, and I am actively trying to correct that.

But a simple "no" is fine with me. A writer can't curl up into a ball every time he or she receives a rejection. What I do hate is having a query ignored. When editors don't respond to a pitch, a freelance writer is dead in the water. Do you try with another publication? Do you wait a little longer? This is especially problematic with time-sensitive stories. I realize that some editors are fielding 100 pitches a day, but simply as a professional courtesy, a "no" should be sent. Professional writers (usually) don't need "nice" no's. We just need a "no" so that we can move on—we know it's not personal.

In this case, Ben gave the pitch a quick approval, and I added it to Trello, where I track my ongoing jobs.

The story wasn't exactly Benghazi, so there's nothing particularly interesting or exciting regarding the journalistic legwork involved. I did research, contacted the relevant parties, called the Department of Defense for their side of things, contacted SIGAR for photographs, etc. Pretty much everything I write involves some form of this. Sometimes it's exhilarating and you speak with cool people you've only read about. Sometimes there's confrontation. Sometimes the story is all a big misunderstanding and something new and exciting takes its place. You do your best with the resources you have. In this case, nobody was going to fly me to Afghanistan to get to the bottom of things, and so the telephone was my best tool available. (Note to editors: I'm happy to fly to Afghanistan to get to the bottom of things if you'll send me.)

I wrote the piece over a couple of hours at Starbucks. My writing process is messy. I probably wrote a dozen ledes, and wrote several passages that didn't work or quite gel. The process doesn't exactly make me feel nervous, exactly, though it does induce some level of concerned anticipation. Why aren't the words flowing? Why aren't they perfect? Where does this fit? Why did I go into the business? And so on. Once the first draft is written, I feel a lot better about life in general. I let the story sit for a bit, and returned to it with fresh eyes, strengthening the poetry of the piece; cutting away the needless prose; rewriting weak or inelegant phrases, sentences, or passages; and just generally crossing my t's and dotting my lowercase-j's.

I filed the piece, and received an edit a few hours later. Ben is a great editor, and his suggested changes were good ones. I again revised and filed, and the mysterious machine at The Week did the rest. I have no idea what happens between filing the final version and its publication the next day. Once the piece does go live, I beat the drum on social media. I know there's a kind of gaucheness to promoting your own work, but I feel like it's a necessary part of the job and do it anyway. I have a good Twitter following and there's not yet been a stampede to the exits, so I assume I'm doing OK.

And there you have it.

(Image credit: An unnamed whistleblower in Afghanistan)