New Horizons at Pluto

Image of Pluto

By Travis Metcalfe

In the 1960s, the Apollo missions to the moon inspired a generation of scientists and engineers to pursue careers in space exploration. On the heels of those successes, the Voyager missions to the outer solar system inspired my generation. I vividly remember the anticipation of waiting for the next set of full-color images to appear in National Geographic magazine: Jupiter in 1979, Saturn in 1981, Uranus in 1986 and Neptune in 1989. Around the time of this final encounter, scientists began pushing NASA for a dedicated mission to Pluto. Last July, the New Horizons mission finally reached its destination.

By now you have probably seen the stunning new images of Pluto and its largest moon Charon. What you may not realize is that the New Horizons mission has many connections to Colorado. “There was a student-built instrument from CU,” says Alan Stern, principal investigator for the mission and planetary scientist at Southwest Research Institute in Boulder. “Lockheed Martin built the rocket, Ball Aerospace built the main camera system, and many local small businesses were involved.” Stern came to Boulder in 1983 to work at the Center for Astrophysics and Space Astronomy before earning a doctorate in astrophysics and planetary science from CU in 1989. In 1994 he established the Boulder branch of Southwest Research Institute, and in 2001 he led a successful proposal to NASA for the mission to Pluto.

Blasting off from Cape Canaveral in 2006, New Horizons is widely known as the fastest spacecraft ever launched. While the Apollo missions spent 90 hours to reach the moon, New Horizons whipped past it in just nine hours. Like previous missions to the outer solar system, the spacecraft then headed to Jupiter, making a slingshot maneuver around the giant planet to gain additional speed. Earlier probes took about five years to reach Jupiter, but New Horizons got there in just 13 months. Picking up speed to an impressive 23 kilometers (14.3 miles) per second, the encounter with Jupiter shaved three years off its long journey — but it would still take eight more years for New Horizons to arrive at Pluto. Yes, even the fastest spacecraft ever launched took nearly a decade to reach the edge of the solar system. Space is big. If New Horizons continued at its present speed toward the nearest star system, it would take more than 75,000 years to reach Alpha Centauri.

Shortly after New Horizons was launched, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) infamously adopted a new definition for planets that excluded poor Pluto. Why did this happen? Starting in 1992, astronomers began to discover many small objects outside the orbit of Neptune that appeared similar to comets, but which never came close enough to the sun to evaporate and develop tails. As time went by and the technologies for detecting these objects improved, surveys began to turn up some that were comparable in size to Pluto. Theories suggested that there were likely to be hundreds or thousands of such objects in the outer solar system, so classifying them all as new planets could create real problems for school children trying to remember them all. So the IAU decided that Pluto should now be called a “dwarf planet,” the prototype of this new class of objects.

Whether you consider Pluto a planet or a “dwarf planet,” the images from New Horizons are once again redefining the way astronomers think about these icy objects.

“Pluto is complex beyond anybody’s expectation,” Stern says. “There’s a place we informally call ‘Sputnik Planum’ that is the size of the state of Texas, and it was born yesterday, geologically speaking.”

Stern explains that planetary scientists use craters to determine the ages of surface features. Areas with many craters must have formed a long time ago, while pristine surfaces must be relatively young.

“The solar system has been around for about 4,500 million years, and Sputnik Planum is less than 10 million years old,” he says. “That is beyond perplexing, it is astounding.”

The small bodies at the edge of the solar system were always presumed to be geologically dormant, so the new observations have challenged conventional wisdom.

One of the most significant achievements of New Horizons has been its ability to inspire the public. It has been 25 years since the Voyager encounter with Neptune, and this is the first time that NASA has visited a new large object in the solar system during the lifetimes of most college students.

Stern has been giving presentations around the country, almost once a week since July, and he hears the same thing from young people at nearly every venue.

“New Horizons is the best thing that’s happened in our lifetimes,” they say.

Let’s hope that space exploration will continue to spark that fire in the next generation.

Leaving Science to the Scientists

Pope Francis and Barack Obama

By Travis Metcalfe

When Pope Francis addressed Congress last month he asserted that “climate change is a problem that can no longer be left to a future generation,” casting it as a moral issue rather than a political one. His comments echoed a letter about the environment released by the Vatican in June, which addressed the issue for the first time in the history of the church.

“Climate change is a global problem with grave implications,” he wrote. “It represents one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day.”

Prominent Republicans were quick to criticize him, with Jeb Bush reminding us that the Pope is “not a scientist,” and Rick Santorum suggesting that “we probably are better off leaving science to the scientists.” Fair enough — but will Congress actually support climate research, and what are the local impacts of their budget decisions?

One of the greatest sources of anxiety for research scientists at our local laboratories is the annual drama over the federal budget. Each year Congress is supposed to pass a budget prior to the start of the new fiscal year, which begins on Oct. 1. If Congress cannot agree on a budget, the government either shuts down or a temporary “continuing resolution” is passed to keep operating with spending levels from the previous year. If the final budget includes cuts for some programs, this gives government agencies less time to implement the required changes. Most science budgets in the U.S. have been flat since 2003, which is effectively a cut when you consider rising operating costs (like health insurance premiums).

Although the federal government is now operating under a continuing resolution, congressional committees have already approved many of the appropriations bills that will eventually become the 2016 budget. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) monitors the progress of these bills each year, and keeps track of proposed federal spending on research. In a recent report, the AAAS reveals large cuts in the House budget for programs related to climate research and renewable energy. The Department of Commerce program that funds climate science at NOAA is slated for a 19 percent cut. The National Science Foundation division of geosciences, which supports research at NCAR, would be slashed by 17 percent. The Department of Energy program that includes NREL would suffer a 13 percent cut, and NASA’s earth science budget would be reduced by 6 percent.

“I find it hard to understand the rationale behind these moves,” says Tom Bogdan, former president of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research that operates NCAR, and past director of the Space Weather Prediction Center at NOAA. Bogdan has been working as a researcher and science administrator in Boulder since 1983, aside from the few years he spent at the National Science Foundation in Washington D.C. He suggests it isn’t unprecedented for Congress to exert such influence on specific programs deep within the agency budgets, but it has been relatively rare in the past 10-15 years. And these budget decisions have the potential to affect Colorado.

“The economic impact is large,” he says. “I think if they actually shut down a lab, that would be huge.”

A 2013 report prepared by the Leeds School of Business at CU Boulder supports Bogdan’s contention that Colorado — and Boulder in particular — would suffer from significant cuts to our local laboratories. Federal research facilities in Colorado added $2.3 billion to the economy in 2012, directly employing almost 8,000 people and contributing to the creation of an additional 7,700 jobs. The report breaks down these benefits by county and by laboratory. Three of the largest contributions statewide come from labs around Boulder: NREL accounts for $815 million and more than 6,100 jobs; NCAR brings in $421 million and nearly 3,200 jobs; while NOAA provides $278 million and 2,100 jobs. Taken together, the climate science and renewable energy labs around Boulder add $1.5 billion to the local economy and support 11,400 jobs, accounting for two-thirds of the federal research dollars that flow into the state.

If the cuts proposed in the House budget become law, Boulder will certainly feel the economic impact. There is still time to influence the 2016 budget during negotiations between the House and Senate before the continuing resolution expires in December. If Republicans sincerely believe that we should “leave science to the scientists,” they will continue to support the Colorado laboratories whose research inspired the Pope to speak out on climate change in the first place.

Covering science news around Boulder

NCAR Mesa Laboratory

By Travis Metcalfe

Since the end of World War II, Boulder has been transformed from a sleepy college town to a Mecca for scientists from around the world. Several years ago, Fiske Planetarium at the University of Colorado (CU) began collaborating with the Boulder Weekly to publish a monthly “Lab Notes” column covering recent science news from a local perspective. The initial articles tackled misconceptions about climate change and evaluated the potential for life in the universe, but then the column quietly disappeared. This month we are pleased to announce the resurrection of the series for at least one year with support from White Dwarf Research Corporation, a local nonprofit organization dedicated to scientific research and public education.

With four government labs around Boulder, many of the scientific discoveries that make the news have some connection to local researchers. Harvard astrophysicist Walter Orr Roberts brought the High Altitude Observatory to Boulder in the late 1940s, expanding in 1960 to establish the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR). The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) was created in 1970 by Richard Nixon, but its predecessor (the Central Radio Propagation Laboratory) had been operating here since the early 1950s. The National Bureau of Standards was also in town back then, but it wasn’t renamed the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) until 1988. Jimmy Carter established the Solar Energy Research Institute in 1974, which became the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in 1991 under George H.W. Bush.

The labs have been like a magnet for scientists, who were attracted to Boulder and quickly discovered that they couldn’t leave. As this army of Ph.Ds piled higher and deeper over the decades, new research institutes and non-profit organizations were established to absorb them. The Joint Institute for Laboratory Astrophysics ( JILA) was formed in 1962 by NIST and CU. The National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) came to town in 1976 and began operating with support from NOAA and CU in 1982. Grant-funded researchers at CU created the Center for Astrophysics and Space Astronomy (CASA) in 1985, while several non-profit organizations sprouted up in the 1990s around similar concepts: Space Science Institute (SSI) in 1992, a division of Southwest Research Institute (SWRI) in 1994, and a branch of Northwest Research Associates (NWRA) in 1998. Boulder now boasts the largest number of PhDs per capita of any city in the nation, at 8.2 percent in 2012.

I am one of the many scientists who came to Boulder and decided to stay. I arrived in 2004 to work at NCAR with a fellowship from the National Science Foundation. I was hired as a staff scientist two years later, and I spent the next six years working to understand the structure and dynamics of the sun using observations of other nearby stars. In 2012, when the full impact of the Great Recession finally hit the government, I lost my dream job to federal budget cuts. As local scientists have been doing for decades, I stayed in town and supported my research by writing grant proposals — in my case primarily to NASA. In the past few years, I have been using the Kepler space telescope to study planetary systems around other stars.

After several years of writing grant proposals to make a living, I finally realized what I missed most about my dream job at NCAR. One of my responsibilities as a staff scientist at a federally-funded laboratory was to share my enthusiasm for science with the general public. I took this obligation seriously, writing a monthly column on starstuff.blogspot.com to explain the latest scientific discoveries in the simplest terms, and to provide more context and background than is typically offered in the news. Over the next year I hope to do something similar for the monthly articles in the Lab Notes series, with a special focus on the cutting-edge research that is being done right here in Boulder.

Science journalism is on the decline across the media landscape, and even where it persists the reporters have very little background in science. Some of the labs around town have offices to issue press releases and to connect their scientists to journalists. For the government labs these offices are sometimes headquartered in Washington D.C., while the smaller local research institutes may not have the resources to support media outreach. Only the largest news organizations have staff assigned specifically to cover science, so even these limited efforts tend to be directed at national outlets. Local connections can be lost in the shuffle. Even in the best cases, many scientists have a hard time articulating their research at a level that the public can appreciate, and journalists have difficulty translating complex results into simple language. Boulder is home to a wealth of scientific expertise, and it would be a shame not to make it more accessible to everyone in our community.

Where’s the heat?

Photo credit: NASA

Global warming may have slowed, but that doesn’t make it any less real

By Travis Metcalfe

In the 2004 action film The Day After Tomorrow, global warming melts enough polar ice to disrupt natural ocean currents, plunging the northern hemisphere into a new ice age. While the story is clearly in the realm of science fiction, the premise of the movie is based on real predictions of the possible impacts of climate change that would actually play out more slowly. Boulder is home to some of the world’s leading experts on these kinds of complex interactions between the atmosphere, polar ice and the ocean.

One of the inconvenient truths about climate change is that warming in the atmosphere has slowed down in the past 15 years or so. Make no mistake, the planet is still getting warmer. According to a report issued by NASA and the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) earlier this year, 2014 was the warmest year on record, and the top 10 hottest years have all occurred since 1998. But the Earth has been getting warmer more slowly than in previous decades, something that climate change deniers are quick to point out. Emissions of heat-trapping pollution have continued to rise, so why did the warming slow down?

Climate scientists like Kevin Trenberth at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) acknowledge that surface warming has slowed since the late 1990s, but he notes several sources of natural variability that may help explain the slowdown. Regular magnetic cycles in the sun change its brightness slightly over decades, and our star went through a relatively quiet period in the mid-2000s that may account for up to 10 percent of the recent slowdown in warming. Another small contribution came from a series of volcanic eruptions that blasted tiny particles into the upper atmosphere where they temporarily blocked sunlight and had a cooling effect. But Trenberth thinks most of the slowdown can be blamed on natural cycles in the oceans. We’ll come back to this idea later.

In contrast to the recent slowdown of atmospheric warming, polar melting has accelerated during roughly the same time period. Scientists at the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) in Boulder have been using satellites to track the extent of Arctic sea ice since 1979. This March, when ice normally covers the largest area for the year, NSIDC recorded the lowest extent of Arctic sea ice in 35 years. If the trend continues, the expected area at the annual minimum this September could fall below the record melting seen in 2012. Whatever happens, keep in mind that the top 10 years with the lowest sea ice extent have all occurred since 2002.

Sea ice doesn’t tell the full story, because it only measures the area covered by ice regardless of its thickness. A study published last month in the journal Science claimed that some regions of Antarctica have lost up to 18 percent of their thickness in less than two decades. The researchers determined the thickness of the ice by bouncing a laser beam off the surface while simultaneously using satellites with ice-penetrating radar to find the depth of the underlying rock at the same location. The biggest losses were found in regions of Antarctica where the ice sits directly on the sea floor, suggesting a possible connection to deep ocean currents, according to the authors.

This brings us back to Trenberth’s assertion that the ocean may be the main culprit for the recent slowdown in atmospheric warming. Although some details remain to be understood, there are many long-term interactions between the atmosphere and the ocean. The best-known example is probably the “El Niño” phenomenon, a band of warm water that develops in the tropical Pacific and leads to periodic changes in global temperatures and rainfall. These circulation patterns in the ocean change over decades, sometimes absorbing extra heat from the atmosphere and other times releasing it.

Trenberth notes that the Pacific has mostly been absorbing heat from the atmosphere since 1998, just when atmospheric warming began to slow down and polar melting started to accelerate. The previous episode of heat uptake by the Pacific Ocean ended in 1976, when it switched to a state of mostly releasing heat and adding to the atmospheric warming caused by heat-trapping pollution. These cycles are not perfectly regular, but if the pattern continues we might expect that atmospheric warming will again accelerate and polar melting could slow down sometime in the next decade.

Humanity is currently running an uncontrolled experiment with our home planet. Scientists in Boulder and around the world have made great strides in understanding the complex interactions that drive climate change, and even the small natural variations that influence its pace over time. The recent slowdown in atmospheric warming and the acceleration of polar melting may not have developed as quickly as the plot-line of a Hollywood film, but the future promises to be no less dramatic.