Get ready for a cosmic event - Plutopalooza

By Silver City Sun-News Updated at 2014-02-17 04:59:28 +0000

It's time to get cracking on plans for a cosmic event. If all goes according to plan, in July 2015, the New Horizons probe, which was launched on Jan. 19, 2006 with Clyde Tombaugh's ashes on board, will arrive at Pluto.

There was a lot of excitement about that during Tombaugh Day on Feb. 1, our annual tribute to the man who discovered our favorite planet.

And the mood of the populace is that we don't want to quibble about whether our cool little planetary amigo should have been reclassified with a "dwarf" in front of its name. By any standards, Clyde's discovery was extraordinary, and so is the event that will be a unique homecoming of sorts. Name any other time when the ashes of a fabulous space pioneer, a beloved man many of us were privileged to meet, has actually soared by a planet he discovered on the outer reaches of our solar system? Never, that's when. And if ever there was cause for a fiesta, this is it.

There has been some interesting feedback since I first proposed Plutopalooza in 2010.

A city council member from Steator, Ill., Clyde's birthplace, contacted me about a nationwide celebration.

"I do hope it off!," commented nationally-known artist Flo Hosa Dougherty, who revealed that she has painted an oil entitled "Pluto Do You Read Us — Over" to mark the occasion.

There have been inquiries from NASA about Plutopalooza, said Kimberly Hanson, education curator for the Las Cruces Museum of Nature and Science, which has hosted impressive Tombaugh Day celebrations. This month's event involved the Branigan Cultural Center, the Astronomy Society of Las Cruces, Alamogordo's New Mexico Space History Museum and the NMSU Astronomy Department (which Clyde helped found). People I talked to in all those groups seemed interested in joining the Plutopalooza planning team.

There are lots of other regional groups and organizations that seem like naturals for the effort: our two other area space museums, one at WSMR and the Space Murals Museum in Organ. Then there are all the city museums, and of course, all the regional institutions named for Clyde: including the New Mexico Space Museum's Tombaugh Planetarium, a local elementary school, an observatory and an art gallery.

Some of us pondered how we could mark the big moment when New Horizons makes its closest approach to Pluto. That's supposed to happen on July 14, 2015, on a Tuesday, not the most conducive day for a big New Year's-like countdown moment.

"When the Horizons Probe reaches Pluto, we won't be able to see it in real time. There will be a four-to-seven hour delay because of the distance involved," according to Chambo Chambers, a winter Las Cruces resident who said he serves as a docent for the Pluto tour at Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Ariz., where Tombaugh discovered Pluto on Feb. 18, 1930.

"Starting in January 2015, we'll begin to get images that are better than the Hubble (Space Telescope) could show us. Starting in June 2015, for a period of six weeks or so, approaching and then seeing the other side of Pluto as the probe is leaving, we'll know more about Pluto than we know today," said Chas Miller, a NASA Earth and Space Fellow and a faculty member with New Mexico State University's astronomy department.

Sounds to me like we'll need some big screen Jumbotrons dedicated to Pluto watching for at least a week. Where should they be? How about Las Cruces City Hall, Pan Am Center, maybe even at the Sun-News? I'm going to talk to our pros about some supporting Plutopalooza social media: Facebook and blogs, as well as the best ways to Tweet and Tout about Pluto and Clyde and share news and views.

Maybe we can have a real-time countdown, followed by some sort of benefit ball or fiesta to benefit NMSU's Tombaugh scholarship fund.

Plutopalooza could offer some great teachable moments for students in area schools in the months leading up to Plutopalooza.

Math and science skills could be used to calculate and confirm New Horizon's progress, using NASA website information.

And visual, performing and literary artists of all ages could contribute their creativity. Following Flo Hosa Dougherty's lead, we could invite area painters, sculptors, multimedia artists and filmmakers to join for an exhibition. The Tombaugh Gallery would be a logical place for a show.

Maybe we should get the Spaceport involved and see how many luminaries we can enlist and how many T-shirt designs we can devise and discover.

And let's not stop there. How about a fine Pluto wine? And Pluto beer or ale. Fiery Pluto Salsa. Pluto cocktails, sundaes, varietal chiles. Pluto sandwiches and symphonies, rock bands and dances, poems and film festivals.

Share your Plutopalooza dreams and visions with me, and I'll pass them on to the planning committee.