NASA's Mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt
Posted on January 21, 2021
New Horizons Science Team Member
On the evening of Jan. 19, 2006, the New Horizons team held a post-launch celebration at a hotel in Cocoa Beach, Florida. I showed up with face paint and a map of Pluto. Bypassing the stacks of freshly delivered pizzas in the ballroom, I diverted down the hall with Deputy Project Scientist Leslie Young. Leslie's job was to paint my freshly shaved head with the very best map of Pluto she could render. The best map at the time was a blobby picture assembled from years of observations by a large telescope on Earth, and the intent of the New Horizons mission was to make this map a historical artifact by visiting Pluto and exploring its surface up close.
It took Leslie 30 minutes to paint my head. She followed the map precisely: bright regions in the south, darker terrain in the north, and a patchy equator connecting them. Leslie added her best educated guesses for several impact craters and mountain ranges. We walked out. I was Pluto.
We headed into the ballroom where we found mission Principal Investigator Alan Stern. "Henry," he said, "when I asked you to dress as Pluto, I meant Pluto the dog."
On the other side of the room, Leslie and I spied Patsy Tombaugh, wife of the late Pluto discoverer, Clyde Tombaugh. She was visiting with Jim Christy, discoverer of Pluto's moon Charon. When Jim discovered Charon, he named it ostensibly after the boatman of Hades, crossing the river Styx. But Jim has always pronounced the moon with a soft "Ch," alliterating with his wife, Charlene, who he really named it after.
I walked up to Charlene. As Jim and Patsy looked on, I asked Charlene if she would oblige. Charlene smiled, and nodded. And then she stared at me, and I stared at her, and in flawless synchronous rotation, we slowly began three perfect orbits around our mutual center of mass.
Principal Investigator Alan Stern, Deputy Project Scientist Leslie Young and Henry Throop, as Pluto. (Credit: Paul Starkis/Henry Throop)
New Horizons Co-I Dennis Reuter skeptically examines the Pluto albedo map. (Credit: Paul Starkis/Henry Throop)
Charlene Christy, the real-life inspiration for the name of Pluto's moon Charon, orbits Henry Throop as Pluto. (Credit: Paul Starkis/Henry Throop)
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