Ask Dr. Alan Stern

We’re testing a new “Ask” article format here at Universe Today and we know you’ve got a question you’d like to ask Alan Stern!

Here’s how it works: Readers can submit questions they would like Universe Today to ask the guest responder. Simply post your question in the comments section of this article. We’ll take the top five (or so) questions, as ranked by “likes” on the discussion posts. If you see a question you think is good, click the “like” button to give it a vote.

Keep in mind that final question acceptance is based on the discretion of Universe Today and in some cases, the responder and/or their employer.

Our inaugural launch (pun intended) will feature Dr. Alan Stern, principal investigator for NASA’s “New Horizons” mission to Pluto.

Stern is a planetary scientist and an author who has published more than 175 technical papers and 40 popular articles. His research has focused on studies of our solar system’s Kuiper belt and Oort cloud, comets, satellites of the outer planets, Pluto and the search for evidence of solar systems around other stars. He has worked on spacecraft rendezvous theory, terrestrial polar mesospheric clouds, galactic astrophysics and studies of tenuous satellite atmospheres, including the atmosphere of the Moon.

Stern has a long association with NASA, serving the agency’s Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate from 2007-2008; he was on the NASA Advisory Council and was the principal investigator on a number of planetary and lunar missions, including his current stint with the New Horizons Pluto-Kuiper Belt mission. He was the principal investigator of the Southwest Ultraviolet Imaging System, which flew on two space shuttle missions, STS-85 in 1997 and STS-93 in 1999.

He has been a guest observer on numerous NASA satellite observatories, including the International Ultraviolet Explorer, the Hubble Space Telescope, the International Infrared Observer and the Extreme Ultraviolet Observer.

Stern holds bachelor’s degrees in physics and astronomy and master’s degrees in aerospace engineering and planetary atmospheres from the University of Texas, Austin. In 1989, Stern earned a doctorate in astrophysics and planetary science from the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Aside from being the Principal Investigator for NASA’s “New Horizons” mission to Pluto, Currently Stern is the Associate Vice President of R&D – Space Science and Engineering Division at the Southwest Research Institute and recently was appointed director of the Florida Space Institute at Kennedy Space Center.

For those of you who are fans of Pluto, Dr. Stern went on the record against the IAU’s decision in 2006, stating “It’s an awful definition; it’s sloppy science and it would never pass peer review..”

Before submitting your question, take a minute and read a bit more about Dr. Stern at: Dr. Alan Stern

We’ll take questions until 4:00PM (MST) Tuesday December 20th and provide a follow up article with Dr. Stern’s responses to your questions.

18 Replies to “Ask Dr. Alan Stern”

  1. Oh, very cool idea Universe Today!! 😀 Here’s my first question: (a bit sci-fi’ish, but these days sci-fi is becoming all the more reality, so here goes.)

    Many sci-fi author’s have dreamed of putting some sort of telescope on the surface of Pluto to take advantage of the relative darkness and extreme cold encountered on this distant dwarf planet. How feasible would it be, judging from what we’re learning from the New Horizons expedition, to actually land a spacecraft, or a telescope, on Pluto’s surface? If such a telescope where deployed, how much more effective, if at all, could it be than an instrument like the JWST?

    Thanks in advance 😀

  2. Here’s my question.

    The Dawn mission to Vesta has shown us a body that was much less round than expected. Do you think it is possible that New Horizons will surprise us about Pluto, to the same degree?

    Please compare the expectations of the New Horizons fly by, to the early images of Vesta from Dawn.

  3. Here’s my question.

    The Dawn mission to Vesta has shown us a body that was much less round than expected. Do you think it is possible that New Horizons will surprise us about Pluto, to the same degree?

    Please compare the expectations of the New Horizons fly by, to the early images of Vesta from Dawn.

  4. Ok, there’s one irrelevant but very ‘flammable’ question:

    Dr. Stern, do you think Pluto should be considered as a planet?


    1. I would change it to:
      Dr. Stern, do you HONESTLY think that Pluto is a planet? 😀

      The next question would be, what do you think about Laurele aka non-conformist actress? :DDD

      But, yeah, his achievements are admirable, but I’d kill Pluto “anytime” with a current knowledge. :d

      Serious question would be, I do Icehunting, I did like 25 000 images, so what do the statistics tell us so far about KBOs.

  5. My question has to do with the two icy moons, Europa and Enceladus, as contenders for future robotic missions. Given the limited funds available, I suppose only one of these worlds can be visited to be studied/explored in depth in the near future. Which do you recommend as a suitable target for a mission in the 2025 time-frame in terms of value for money, scientific return, and practicality, and what kind of mission do you propose (lander vs. orbiter) ?

    Ah I wish I could ask more questions!

  6. Cool use of the social media embedding of blogs!

    The question I would put to Stern is probably a bit misinformed, but here goes:

    Q: Kuiper objects differentiate strongly in color suggesting compositional or perhaps formation differences. Interestingly the color distribution correlates with the two different cold and hot Kuiper populations.

    Assuming the spectral analysis capability of New Horizon works for identifying the follow up Kuiper objects beyond Pluto-Charon, and given the putative possibility of choosing between several such targets, what type of target would the mission aim for? Would it try to cover as much diversity of objects as possible or is there a certain class of objects that could be important to concentrate on?

    And yes, there is an implied “why” in the last part of the question. Why would one choose the one or the other strategy in this particular first mission of its kind?

  7. Dr. Stern, do you think Pluto should be considered as a planet?

    I am scooped! My first question would have been:

    Q: “What is the likelihood that Pluto-is-a-planet nutters would refrain from commenting on this thread?” =D

    Actually, it may still be a valid question.

    As long as we are on the subject:

    Dr. Stern went on the record against the IAU’s decision in 2006, stating “It’s an awful definition; it’s sloppy science and it would never pass peer review..”

    I can see how a standardized definition used to catalog objects is somewhat a science topic, if not a subject as such.

    However, I don’t see how it didn’t pass “peer review”. The definition was subject to a very long process of peer commissions and finally voted on by peers.

    More pertinent here perhaps, the qualitative distinction it was based has been published in several papers. Interestingly, among the authors were A. Stern! [ Stern, S. Alan; and Levison, Harold F. (2002). “Regarding the criteria for planethood and proposed planetary classification schemes“. Highlights of Astronomy 12: 205–213.]

    There is a very definite distinction between planets and other objects in our own planetary system.* (Best seen in fig 1 of Soter’s paper.) The Soter paper was published in the Astronomical Journal where it passed peer review (according to Wikipedia on AJ).

    * Interestingly I believe it stands up in exoplanetary system as well, even if it never was intended to. Of course you would then have to obey the implied conditions of after migration is finished and the disk is cleared, et cetera.

  8. Hi Guys, Are the Chinese and Russian possible space stations compatible with docking specifications with the international space station. Is it not possible for the USA Airforce shuttle,currently in space, to sort out the Russian Mars vessel and send it on its way to Mars

  9. Why was it considered “urgent” to get to Pluto before the atmosphere refroze?

    This is “blue sky” research in any case, so why couldn’t it have waited another 150 years? How would you argue the urgency with a marine biologist who needed the funds to discover new species before global warming makes causes their extinction?

  10. Four of the craft escaping the Solar System – Pioneers 10 & 11 and Voyagers 1 & 2 – have on board some sort of “message” to any possible extraterrestrials in the unlikely event they find it. Why was not some sort of message like that included on New Horizons, which may be the last (in our lifetimes) craft to also escape the Solar System?

  11. Hi, Dr. Stern. Are any present or foreseeable technologies being considered for exploring the depths of our four “gas giant” planets? Thanks.

  12. Lots of questions but one that comes right to mind is

    In what way and too what extent will what is learnt by New Horizons about lightning conditions have a bearing on the mission later on
    I read that a challenging part of the Voyager flyby of Neptune was the low light levels from the Sun
    so considering how little is known about albedos of KBOs , in what ways they are moving E.G. spinning, rotatation, moon shadows, eclipses, occultations etc what criteria have been considered for deciding what changes in mission profile, commands etc would be applicable in regards to such things.

    Will the Pluto system flyby be a major consideration (particulary with those challenging moons) in plans afterwads for imaging KBOs
    Have computer simulations been done?

  13. what future close approaches might New Horizons and its third stage make in the far future to other stellar systems?

    this means you have to propagate these two orbits out for several millennia 🙂

  14. What is your opinion in regards to the Obama Administration cutting funding for NASA’s Low Orbit Missions and directing them into a single Heavy-Lift Rocket Mission thats slated for completion in 2016? Why such an urgency?

  15. Dr. Stern,

    Sedna is a TNO (trans-Neptunian object) with a very unusual orbit. Among several plausible explanations for its orbit is the theory that Sedna originated in a different solar system entirely (Morbidelli and Levinson, 2004). Sedna will reach perihelion around the year 2076. In light of the potentially unique science value of Sedna, will a successful New Horizons prompt consideration of this and other TNO’s as targets for future exploration?

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