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Friday, July 24, 2015

There Is Ice on Pluto! (And Other Momentous News from Astronomy's Best Week in Decades)

Posted By on Fri, Jul 24, 2015 at 11:30 AM

click to enlarge Pluto - NASA
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This might have been the best week in astronomy since homo sapiens played golf on the moon in 1972, or, if fiction counts, since that time in 1987 where a cloaked Klingon  Bird of Prey landed in Golden Gate Park.

It has been officially determined that there is ice on Pluto! New Horizons’s latest and clearest pictures of the quasi-planet’s surface have revealed ice sheets and signs of geologic activity, which according to NASA, is “something scientists hoped to find but didn’t expect.” Like a terrestrial glacier, the sheet may undergo seasonal flows. In spite of its location billions of miles from the sun, and a surface temperature of minus-390 degrees Fahrenheit, Pluto appears to have weather that varies by latitude.

Its primary mission completed, New Horizons will now examine other objects in the Kuiper Belt, the region beyond Neptune in which Pluto is the largest body. The search for a "trans-Neptunian planetary object" (aka Planet X) has intrigued scientists since Pluto's 1930 discovery. Probably astrologers, too, who are itching to name something after the gods Apollo and Vulcan.

In honor of this discovery on our beloved plutoid dwarf planet, we present Pluton and the Humanoids’ 1982 hit “World Invaders.”

The news that a strikingly Earth-like planet 1,400 light-years away is obviously the other biggie. Kepler-452b is 60 percent larger than the Earth and takes 385 days to orbit a star that is 20 percent more luminous than the sun, but. It’s the 12th in a set of potentially habitable planets that the Kepler space telescope so far found in the cosmos since its 2009 launch.

According to, SETI astronomer Frank Drake — whose Drake Equation posits the likelihood of the existence of extraterrestrial civilizations — is convinced that this only augments the possibility of life in the universe, and that one day we will find it. (Among the plausible reasons for why we haven’t so far is that there is a super-predator civilization out there and the planets it hasn’t yet pillaged understand it’s prudent to keep quiet.)

In addition to the maybe-Earth-II, we also got the clearest picture of the Earth in full sun in over 40 years as the Deep Space Climate Observatory satellite too an image of our planet from one million miles away. Aesthetically, it’s a little disappointing compared the famous “Blue Marble” photo of Africa due to all the cloud cover over North America, but you can find Baja California without much trouble and proceed from there.

A little more out-there, Sen. Ted Cruz speculated that Captain Jean-Luc Picard was probably a Democrat while Captain Kirk was a likely Republican. This wasn’t Cruz’s second foray into the pop-culture pantheon after his Simpsons imitations, but William Shatner wasn’t having it.
If all of this astronomy news has left you hungering for the answers to life, the universe, and everything, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson can explain it all for you in eight minutes. (The answer is not 42.)

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About The Author

Peter Lawrence Kane

Peter Lawrence Kane is SF Weekly's Arts Editor. He has lived in San Francisco since 2008 and is two-thirds the way toward his goal of visiting all 59 national parks.


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