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Here's to Pluto ... and space pioneers


An artist's conception shows NASA's New Horizons probe at Pluto.

Few folks involved in the space effort span as wide a spectrum as Alan Stern: The 53-year-old planetary scientist is working to get himself and other researchers onto suborbital space planes to do science — and he's also heading up the science team for one of NASA's farthest-flung space efforts, the New Horizons mission to Pluto.

New Horizons is due to reach the dwarf planet by 2015, putting Pluto back in the international spotlight. And by that time, Stern may well have taken a trip to outer space himself — perhaps in XCOR Aerospace's Lynx rocket plane or Virgin Galactic's VSS Enterprise. We'll talk about Pluto as well as the pioneering efforts to commercialize space travel during "Virtually Speaking Science," at 10 p.m. ET Sunday on BlogTalkRadio and in the Second Life virtual world.

It's unusually fitting that Sunday's show features a chat with Stern, who is a former NASA associate administrator and currently serves as associate vice president for research and development for the Southwest Research Institute's Space Science and Engineering Division. Sunday happens to mark the 81st anniversary of the Lowell Observatory's announcement of Pluto's discovery.

Some folks have gone so far as to celebrate March 13 as "Planet Pluto Day." This year, the Greenwood Space Travel Co. in Seattle will get a jump on the holiday by holding its annual pro-Pluto rally at 2 p.m. PT Saturday, one day before the anniversary. I'll be there, of course, talking about the state of the planet search and about my book, "The Case for Pluto."

Maybe I'll see you at the march protesting the International Astronomical Union's putdown of Pluto and other dwarf planets. "It's not a long march — just down the street and back," Justin Allan, store manager at Greenwood Space Travel, told me.

Even if you're a Pluto-hater, you'll be welcome. The beauty of the Pluto protest is that it doesn't take itself too seriously. I wish the same could be said of everyone who's been involved in the planethood debate.

If you can't make it to Seattle on Saturday, please tune in for Sunday's show. To get ready for the program, I e-mailed Stern a few questions about his twin interests, Pluto and private spaceflight. Here's an edited version of the quick Q&A:

Cosmic Log: You're involved in so many different angles of the space frontier ... is there a unifying principle that ties all of them together?

Alan Stern: Well, I work on what I am interested in and where I think I can make a difference.

Q: What's the status of the New Horizons mission? It sounds as if the spacecraft is back in hibernation, but I'm sure that doesn't mean that the science team is hibernating as well....

A: New Horizons is doing very well — we're just now crossing the orbit of Uranus and in great shape from every perspective. We're even planning the details of the Pluto system encounter already.

Q: How has the scientific perspective on Pluto changed in the past year, or in the past five years? Some folks, such as Caltech astronomer Mike Brown [who discovered the dwarf planet that led to Pluto's downfall], say only a very few scientists are still arguing to have Pluto put in the planet category. I'm guessing that's not your perception.

A: Mike knows that's not so.

Q: Do you think developments in the Dawn mission (for example, the Vesta observations expected this year) will have any effect on the scientific discussions about small bodies in the solar system? Any dramatic results that may come to light?

A: Hard to tell. Maybe, but Dawn is visiting much smaller words than Pluto — Vesta and Ceres could together fit inside Pluto about 15 times!

Q: On commercial space, how do you think the recent suborbital research conference changed the landscape for spaceflight? How do you see the next year shaping up on the commercial front, for suborbital as well as orbital ventures?

A: The next year will be very important, because many of the suborbital companies will be testing their vehicles in flight and even making missions to space.

Q: What do you think will come out of the current deliberations involving NASA and the would-be providers of commercial space taxis for the International Space Station?

A: Several viable commercial crew capsules will be the most likely development, along with launchers than can be man-rated for these capsules to fly on.

Q: What are your thoughts on the decadal report for planetary science. You're a planetary scientist who had to struggle to get your mission to Pluto funded, as well as a former NASA official who had to struggle with planetary mission cutbacks ... what strategy would you suggest for moving forward with the missions on the table for the next decade? Do you think the decadal survey came up with the right strategy?

A: It was a great effort by the planetary community. Unfortunately, owing to the increasing costs of missions and overrun pressures, the next decade looks bleaker than the past one.

How do your opinions line up with Stern's? Tune in via the Web on Sunday to chat with Stern, co-host Robin Snelson of the Space Studies Institute and yours truly. And, oh, by the way ... Happy Pluto Day!

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