Exploring Pluto: On the ground, in the air, and out in space

Saturday 9 July 2016 at 7pm

Holt’s Planetarium, NBHS, Chambers Street, Napier

Royal Astronomical Society of New Zealand’s Beatrice Hill Tinsley 2016 Lecture

Presented by Dr Michael Person, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

PlutoMichael Person

Admission by gold coin donation, on a first come, first seated basis

Dr. Michael Person of MIT will discuss the history of Pluto science starting with the discovery of Pluto, through the discovery and characterization of its atmosphere and moons, to provide context to the discoveries of 2015. Focusing on his own experiences aboard the SOFIA aircraft, and the New Horizons flyby, he will discuss the explosion of Pluto knowledge over the last year, and its context in our understanding of the outer solar system.

Dr. Michael Person is a Research Astronomer in MIT’s Planetary Astronomy Laboratory, and Director of MIT’s George R. Wallace Astrophysical Observatory. He specializes in the observational techniques needed to observe occultations, eclipses, and transits, including high-precision astrometry, and high-time-resolution photometry. His science interests include identifying and characterizing the atmospheres, compositions, and figures of distant solar-system bodies, particularly Triton, Pluto, and Kuiper Belt Objects. Dr. Person received his education at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA) where he received a Bachelor’s degree in Physics, as well as Masters and Doctoral degrees from the Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences.  He trained in observational techniques and occultation science under the mentorship of the late Prof. James Elliot, one of the pioneers of modern occultation astronomy. Dr. Person’s current research focuses on the atmospheres of Pluto and Triton, and the use of the SOFIA (Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy) observatory and other assets to identify and monitor their changes.

The year 2015 was truly the “Year of Pluto”. From the arrival of the historic New Horizons mission to the numerous dedicated Earth-based campaigns to examine Pluto near the flyby epoch, we potentially learned more about Pluto in 2015 than in all of the years since its discovery. During the weeks preceding the New Horizons flyby, a dedicated observation campaign was undertaken in New Zealand and parts of Australia to study Pluto’s atmosphere using the technique of stellar occultation, available only when Pluto passes directly in front of a star. A key component of this campaign was the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), a converted 747 with a 2.5-m telescope, which was based out of Christchurch for these events.

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