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New Horizons: Awaiting the data

Posted by Emily Lakdawalla

19-07-2015 11:21 CDT

Topics: New Horizons, Pluto, amateur image processing, explaining image processing

Update July 20, 14:43 PDT: Contradicting what I was told about on July 17 about the image release policy, some new images (from the "First Look A" downlink) were posted to the raw image website this morning. I don't know what this means for future image release schedule; I do not plan to ask further questions about it now, as the situation appears to be evolving. --ESL

New Horizons is speeding beyond Pluto and Charon, sailing a million-plus kilometers farther away each day. It's still taking photos and other data. Now that we're more than a half-Pluto-day beyond encounter, the spacecraft is seeing again the terrain it observed closely during the encounter, but at a great distance and under challenging lighting conditions; we don't know yet how scientifically useful those pictures will be, although I am sure they will be visually striking. New Horizons will keep being able to point optical instruments at Pluto until the end of July, after which they begin spinning the spacecraft to increase the data transmission rate from about 1 to just under 2 kilobits per second.

It's time to take stock of what images we have on the ground, and what we can expect to see in the future. Here is what has hit the New Horizons raw image website so far. A few more pictures from the flyby have come out as processed press photos, but are not on the raw website yet. By the end of the day Monday, July 20, New Horizons will have finished transmitting to Earth all of the "First Look" data set, and that will largely bring image transmission to an end until mid-September. But when will they get to the raw images page for the public to play with?

The New Horizons Pluto flyby LORRI data set

NASA / JPL / JHUAPL / SwRI / Emily Lakdawalla

The New Horizons Pluto flyby LORRI data set
In the two weeks surrounding New Horizons' flyby of Pluto, only 1% of the science data that it acquired were downlinked to Earth.

I've been eagerly awaiting the posting of the post-flyby images to the New Horizons raw image website, but alas, it became clear on Friday morning (when the images from the first post-flyby transmission, "E-Health 1", should have hit the website) that the mission has decided not to keep updating it the way they did before the flyby. The policy enshrined in the mission's Data Management Plan (PDF) is that "There are no proprietary data rights for the New Horizons mission. Selected uncalibrated (CODMAC Level 2) data, particularly image data, will be publicly released by the New Horizons project over the Internet in close to real time." In January of this year, when it became time to interpret that policy for the Pluto flyby, Alan Stern told me that images would be released within 24 hours of arrival on Earth; at the end of April, when they began raw image release, that became 48 hours of arrival on Earth, and that's the policy that applied throughout Pluto approach.

The 48-hour mark came and went early Friday morning, my time, and no pictures appeared, nor have any new ones appeared since. So I used my opportunity to ask a question of the panel at Friday's briefing to ask what was going on with raw image release, and learned that it will henceforth be less rapid and less frequent. I've exchanged some emails with Alan Stern to find out about the new policy. Here it is:

  • Raw images will be released in weekly batches around 4:00ish on Friday afternoons, eastern time (1:00pm-ish PT, 20:00-ish UT).
  • The raw image releases will include everything downlinked through "close of business Tuesday" preceding that Friday (which I interpret to mean 14:00 PT | 17:00 ET | 21:00 UT).

Given the fact that downlink of images pauses on July 20 and resumes mid-September, that means Friday, July 24 is going to be the one major raw image release day for the summer, and then there may not be much further until September 26. (However, I have heard it rumored that there may be a couple of images that sneak in to image downlinks between now and then.) So, amateur image processors: Mark your calendars for Friday the 24th, let's hope the pictures do get released then, and then people around the world can spend the weekend processing the pictures. Post them far and wide, to your blogs, Twitter, Flickr,, or whatever, and encourage your friends to join in and see what the science team was seeing this week. On Monday, the 27th I'll do a great big image roundup!

Why the change in policy? One reason I've heard is that it's turned out to be somewhat harder than anticipated to turn the downlinked data into images. The near-encounter data set is a little weird compared to the slightly more routine data transmissions that happen before and after the near-encounter phase, and the software tools built on Earth to automatically turn the downlinked data into science data sets are not working in the automatic way that they should. One significant obstacle is the fact that the spacecraft has not yet had a chance to downlink a lot of the telemetry that documents where the spacecraft thought it was pointed when it took the data, and that kind of telemetry data is used by the automated routines. The images are fine, but without that telemetry, the processing pipelines don't always know what to do with them; it takes a lot of manual interaction, and that takes time.

As for the other reason, I believe that it has to do with the team having a desire to caption and release images themselves before they go out on the raw website. They had evidently thought that 48 hours would be enough to do this, but that process has not gone as smoothly this week as it could have. While the flyby happened perfectly at Pluto, there were several problems on Earth this week with image releases, which have to be coordinated between the Applied Physics Laboratory and NASA. None of these problems are particularly important; they certainly don't reflect any problem with the spacecraft, which is operating exactly as planned. But because of these problems I don't think that as many captioned images are being released as were initially planned, and I think the mission desires more time to work with the images and put their own stamp on their interpretation before they get posted. There are certanly plenty of people inside the mission to do such caption writing, as they actually hired an additional six science journalists to help with communications during the encounter. I was offered the opportunity to be one of them, but turned it down in part because I figured that, especially with the raw images being released, I could more effectively (and voluminously) communicate the exciting encounter from the outside.

It's been harder to do that than I anticipated, and not just because of the halt of raw image release. There are several images from the Friday press briefing, including the ones that I most wanted to write about, that still have not made it on to the NASA or APL websites: especially, a high-resolution, three-image mosaic of the southern end of Tombaugh regio, and a detail view of the dark potential "wind streaks." That's one reason I never wrote up that press briefing. I was waiting for the photos and refuse to post ugly screen caps from NASA TV. If I had had the raw images available to me, this would have been no problem; I could have made my own mosaic and written about it. While I wait for those images, I hope you'll enjoy the excellent coverage of Friday's briefing provided by Nature, Science, National Geographic, NBC News, The New York Times, and others. Anything I wrote at this point would just repeat what they said, because we were all at the same briefing and shown the same pictures.

What do mission scientists fear from raw image release? Based on past assurances, I had thought that this fear was not shared by the New Horizons mission team. But there's a common fear shared by many scientists on many missions: They're afraid of being scooped. Not so much by the public (although there are certainly scientists on some space missions that I will not name who like to try to exert control over what the public may say about their photos), but more by other scientists. I can't explain why this suddenly became a worry the day after the flyby. It's an old story that I've heard on nearly every mission: the New Horizons team has waited nine and a half years to get to Pluto, and fear that some scientist may do work on publicly released images and get it to a journal and published before the science team -- which is still spending most of their time working spacecraft operations -- gets a chance to reap the reward of their decade-plus of work. Even if it's just posted on somebody's blog, there's the boogeyman of the Ingelfinger Rule; despite Science and Nature's repeated assurances to the contrary, scientists fear that some mission outsider posting to a blog will be interpreted as "prior publication" by a journal editor, and their work will be rejected on that basis. There's also the problem that, like any NASA mission science team in the throes of a high-profile event, they are under a gag order that prevents them from disclosing exciting new science without notifying and involving the NASA public affairs bureaucracy first. They could talk about the stuff that has been released, but to reveal stuff that hasn't been through the public affairs process will make for surprises, and NASA doesn't like being surprised. The very people who can tell us the most about what's going on in the pictures are currently under the tightest constraints about what they may say about them. Why did the New Horizons team not consider this a problem in January, but do now? That one, I can't answer.

I don't think the threat of academic scooping is as serious a problem as people fear, at least not in planetary exploration. I do not believe that it has harmed the science output of the Mars Exploration Rover, Cassini, or Curiosity missions. But the stakes are high; I do empathize with scientists' fears, and I also empathize with their frustration about NASA not allowing them to speak freely about what they see. I do see scientists not on the New Horizons team excitedly discussing the press-released images in social media. You may notice that New Horizons team members do not participate in these conversations, because they know things that are not yet public, and can't bring those things to bear on the arguments. Perhaps, if the raw images were out there, the team members would be more free to participate in the public conversations about their mission. Of course, there are many other instruments whose data sets aren't amenable to raw image release.

I think that the release of raw images with lossy JPEG compression and auto-stretching is a compromise that facilitates conversation and inhibits scooping. The compression and stretching munges the data in a way that reduces their usefulness for science while still allowing the public to ride along with the mission. Any publication that would publish an outside scientist's work on poorly-documented, uncalibrated, lossily JPEG compressed image releases is not a good publication, and meanwhile, we can all enjoy the excitement of seeing the encounter unfold in near real time.

Alan Stern has always engaged closely with the amateur image processing community; indeed, he has been a member of, and active participant on, for more than a decade. He has vocally supported raw image release as a great way to engage the public, a public whose advocacy for a Pluto mission is partially responsible for the successes of this week. I know I'm not the only member of the amateur image processing community that has lauded him in our public talks for that support. So I'm not going to lie to you; I'm disappointed by the change in raw image release policy, and it hurt that the sudden halt of raw image release came as a surprise to me after I had been cheering for the mission's openness ever since the Jupiter flyby in 2007. It left me unsure what to do with myself for my last three days at APL after the flyby, a time that I had planned to be working on showing the public what they could do with the data that had been released to the Internet.

On the other hand, release of images within four to eleven days of their receipt is still quite fast, and given how much is happening elsewhere in the solar system, it's enough. Meanwhile, the weekly rate for New Horizons image release will encourage us space fans to turn our attention away from Pluto and back toward some of the other active missions. All of the Opportunity cameras, Cassini's ISS, and all Curiosity cameras have always shared their data with the world within hours of acquisition on Earth. Mars Express VMC also auto-posts data, when the camera is operating. Those four represent the gold standard for raw image release. New Horizons LORRI will be right behind them, with chunkier, slightly later, weekly releases of all their data, provided they stick to the most recently articulated plan. I expect Juno Junocam to join the list of raw image releasers when they arrive at Jupiter next summer.

Most other active planetary missions from NASA and ESA release selected images with text captions on a daily or weekly basis: Dawn FC, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter HiRISE, Mars Odyssey THEMIS, Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera, and Rosetta Navcam, for instance. Eventually, every mission's data sets -- from all the instruments, not just the cameras -- get formally released into NASA's Planetary Data System (for best results, start with the Rings or Imaging or Geosciences nodes) and/or ESA's Planetary Science Archive. How long that takes depends on the mission; it's as short as three months (for HiRISE images) and as long as twelve months (for Cassini ISS). Not every mission abides by the rules, though (I'm still waiting for the scheduled release of Rosetta OSIRIS data that was supposed to happen in May). The New Horizons Project Data Management Plan (PDF) appears to stipulate that the full browse data set will be released just 2 months after it's received on Earth, though the plan (written in 2005) includes a long out-of-date calendar for data downlink.

It's only once the data are in these public archives that scientists outside the science teams are supposed to do actual science work with it, because it's only then that the data are certified, calibrated, and so on; one reason we pay scientists to work on missions is to make sure that these calibrations are correct and that the data sets are well documented and properly understood, to enable other scientists to work with them. However, there are fears that opportunistic scientists will work on press-released or raw images and get that work published, scooping mission scientists who've worked so hard and not gotten their results out yet. Over the years, I have asked many scientists for examples of these, and have come up with only two examples in more than fifty years of solar system exploration; both are borderline cases that involved people inside the missions that the work was supposedly scooping. I think that is not very many, and not enough to justify all the fear, but it's quite likely that I'm not aware of other examples of professional scooping. If you know of such examples, please let me know in the comments or by email!

And now, I'll go check out Mars or Ceres or Saturn while I wait very impatiently for more from Pluto...

See other posts from July 2015


Or read more blog entries about: New Horizons, Pluto, amateur image processing, explaining image processing


wniedrin: 07/19/2015 12:18 CDT

I heard they are taking photos of Pluto nightside by Charon-light. Will they also take photos of Charon nightside by Pluto-light? (it would be 8 x brighter!)

nealmcb: 07/19/2015 12:18 CDT

Emily, you are the #1 rock star of planetary exploration journalism! I simply can't express how much I appreciate your work, including these efforts to bring the public close to the data as soon as possible. Thank you for helping the science teams understand this perspective, and helping us benefit from those "gold standard" teams working on Mars and Saturn.

Richard Adams: 07/19/2015 08:06 CDT

I find it rather depressing that mission scientists (and NASA at large, perhaps more accurately) seem to be completely blind to the catastrophic damage such unfounded paranoia results in: That is, the irreparable harm done in losing all momentum with the general public. Pluto, and New Horizons itself, enjoyed an almost unprecedented (in recent times) bit of PR gold. It was everywhere you went this past week, and the mission was in the minds of the general public like few non-Mars missions have been dating back to the Voyagers. This publicity and attention is not a permanent thing, however, nor is it even long lasting by any stretch. Already, the hoopla and hype is dying back down. All those treasure troves of data and imagery which *are* available, now will go unknown to the general public due to the considerable (week plus) delay in their release. Rather than enjoying a cache of Plutonian riches, now the public at large will be left with remembering New Horizons as a smattering of up-close images. This has a definitive price associated with it: When it comes time to propose or gain support for another planetary mission somewhere, instead of the layperson saying, "Fund that sucker... yesterday! Just look at all the priceless findings of NH," they'll instead shrug and say, "Space... who cares?" NH represented a unique way of gaining resonance and support with the general public, and these unfounded concerns of being "scooped" have forever mitigated what the mission could have otherwise provided as incentive for future planetary science. You just can't ever get back all that media attention and PR we enjoyed this past week, something now and forever lost... and for little genuine reason. Such a shame.

ReaperX: 07/19/2015 08:30 CDT

I couldn't agree more with Richard - this paranoid behavior is damaging to the cause of planetary exploration. It is also unethical - sorry dear mission scientists, but We The Taxpayers pay your salaries and should be considered the ultimate owners of all data generated by NASA space missions. Perhaps that largely imaginary uninvolved scientist who just downloaded the data and beat you to a discovery has as much a right to that discovery as you do. Finally, there is another way in which this behavior is damaging. "NASA is airbrushing evidence of ETs/UFOs/Alien Bases out of pictures" has become almost its own conspiracy subgenre. Perhaps the people who make these kinds of claims would be making them anyway. But do you really have to encourage them and "prove their case" by delaying data release? If all raw data from all our space missions was available on the internet in REAL TIME, that would go a long way towards discouraging the conspiracy mongering. Current practices are practically asking for it.

ReaperX: 07/19/2015 08:45 CDT

Perhaps it's time for the Planetary Society to make real time raw data releases one of its political lobbying goals. The PS is not a society of NASA cheerleaders.

Richard Adams: 07/19/2015 08:55 CDT

@ReaperX - You bring up another good point, one almost entirely missing until your post. Yes, while the "our tax dollars at work" is arguable for any mission, NH is quite unique. Basically, if it weren't for the very society whose page we're all posting on just now (and, hopefully, are all due-paying members in good standing), there wouldn't be a New Horizons... period! It's strictly because all those many astronomy nuts and non-NASA planetary scientists cried out in unison that the mission exists. Ultimately, this mission solely owes itself to the very same segment the team members apparently express paranoia about and disrespect with this particular policy. It wouldn't be anywhere near as irrational or questionable had this simply been par for the course. But after so very long where NH seemed cognizant of its origins and embracing of an unusual degree of openness and informational freedoms, this abrupt turnaround precisely when it does the greatest amount of harm to the future of planetary science is indeed most jarring and unexpected, if not somewhat insulting.

Pete Jackson: 07/19/2015 11:36 CDT

I think the real culprit here is not the NH team, but Pluto itself. It has displayed such an unprecedented active behaviour that it is possible to do 'instant science' even on uncalibrated, compressed data. So, the NH team simply needs to have more time to put out the data with captions and explanations that have been properly discussed among the team. Presumably NASA could override the delays and insist on instant release if they felt that the avalanche of publicity that Pluto has been getting needs to be maintained. We'll have to wait until Stern wtites his book about NH to get the full story!

Paul McCarthy: 07/19/2015 11:53 CDT

Difficult for anyone to add to the above excellent summaries of all the downsides. Media timeliness is absolutely CRUCIAL for future support of planetary exploration! The guilty should be harshly shamed by their colleagues and communities!

Richard Adams: 07/20/2015 12:14 CDT

@Pete: I respect that absolutely does seem to be a factor given the timing this went down. But here's an inescapable fact NASA doesn't seem to get, despite their budgetary apocalypse: Planetary science (+ all space exploration) lives and dies with the public, given the nature of government and funding. Nothing should come second place to ensuring that be focused on as much as is possible, & these opportunities are exceptionally rare. NH was exactly that, one that, it increasingly seems certain, was unprecedented as Pluto proves to be just as impossible as all us Pluto-nuts always dreamt it would be. The secondary reality is such: We're not asking for spectroscopic readings to be released in real-time, or any of NH's other findings. Just the imagery that could have captivated the public, and, just maybe, just perhaps, led countless younglings to grow up with Astronomy near and dear to their hearts, pursuing science degrees because those impossible images of Pluto they saw on the news as a kid awoke something inside of them - much as I'm sure all of us could relate countless stories about our youths. The painful truth...? If it's something *so* obvious as to be blatant on a lossy raw JPEG, and absolutely nothing else, does anyone *really* deserve the 'credit' for 'discovering' it...? Methinks not. Which dovetails with something that came to me after my last post... this insanity where NH team-members apparently have near total exclusivity to any and all Pluto discoveries from any and all NH data. What does this say to future generations considering pursuing doctorate degrees in such fields? "Sorry, kiddo - you'd better get hired by NASA to be a mission team member, or you're SOL!" We bemoan the extraordinary lack of advanced scientific degrees in this country, and yet.. this type of mindset means only a smattering with them can truly contribute to their field. None of this seems at all healthy for the future of astronomy, & shouldn't that be the only concern?

Richard Adams: 07/20/2015 12:26 CDT

Space limitations forced me to curtail my prior post more than I'd have preferred, but I do want to make one thing clear: It sounds like I'm singling out the NH mission and team, which absolutely is not the case - and I don't want it to seem like it is. The NH team has been unusually open for a NASA mission, and they deserve all due respect for that - and all the other amazing work they've done. It's more endemic to NASA as a whole - and to the entire field itself. Any unprecedented findings, everyone hogs with exceptional fortitude so as to "make a name for themselves" when it comes time to submit their paper. And when they *don't*...? Emily's piece left this out, partly due to it not involving NASA; look up Haumea's discovery, if one isn't familiar already. A disreputable group of Spaniard academics essentially stole the discovery from M. Brown's team, by "sniffing" their public data prior to their announcement. Shameful actions like that are why so many in the field believe they have no other choice save following suit with policies like this NH/Pluto 'delay'. It's a sad fact, but a fact nonetheless.

Stephen B: 07/20/2015 02:17 CDT

All I can say is that at least NASA isn't being like the ESA where they hog all of he images and data until their teams have gotten whatever credit from them they can before releasing them. That behavior has really tarnished many people's view of ESA and I hope NASA never goes that far. That said, taking a day or two for analysis so you can reveal the discoveries with the images makes perfect sense. Anyway, the success of this mission has reawakened a new generation towards space exploration and for that, above all, I am grateful.

Svetoslav Alexandrov: 07/20/2015 02:42 CDT

As a scientist myself (I have a PhD degree in plant science) I can say that sometimes I also need to be inspired, and receive gratitude for my work. Indeed, satisfaction is what keeps me motivated. It's only natural that the New Horizons team would feel the same, especially after years of waiting for these results. The truth, however, is that the general public doesn't care much about who's standing behind the mission. The general public cares about the pictures, about the WoW! moment.

Marco: 07/20/2015 07:27 CDT

I think in this case, and in the case of Rosetta, that the PI's are really struggling with images that are contradictory in some way to the broad principles of Kuiper Belt Objects and the history of the solar system in general. They feel that they need more time with the best images just so as not to look too stupid in the context of more radical scientific ideas that are around, some of which might be proved right with the new data. Being stumped is not a reason to prevent release of data but the fact that you cannot un-release data makes the holding back of data the safer option for the career of the PI's and other mission scientists, at least from where they are sitting.

LJ: 07/20/2015 08:01 CDT

I'm going to bring on another example, the Voyager 1 Family Portrait, the image that Dr. Sagan fought for, in my opinion still one of the most important images ever taken. Raw data is still not publicly available, and that is more than 25 years after it was taken. That image really deserves a new release, with new processing tools available today.

Tom: 07/20/2015 08:21 CDT

Good thoughtful commentary here. While I understand the difficulties of releasing important data, I should think the NH team cannot claim a monopoly on information gathered at the government expense, and the inability of releasing even image data except in periodic chunks rings hollow. There was no problem releasing nearly daily data up to the encounter, then the lines went silent and we have seen nothing at all since Friday, and very little then.I had expected a rather different outcome from the NH team.

Squirreltape: 07/20/2015 08:57 CDT

Good article Emily. I know I'm being naive but... why isn't there a moratorium on publishing papers using others' data whereby only pre-sanctioned scientists (submitted before the first public release with PIs discretion) can submit during the designated period. Then everyone on the team(s) can breathe easy knowing they have 'first-call' on publishing from their image releases. All other data than images would not fall under the same rules so can be kept and released into the data-nodes at leisure as the PR-value to the tax-payers involves imagery alone.

Victor in the UK: 07/20/2015 10:02 CDT

I would like to include my thanks to Emily for her very detailed Blogs that allows me to follow the unfolding stories of an amazingly exciting time in history. Seeing that 1st close-up picture of Pluto with its unexpected range of topologies just after flyby, followed on Friday by a 2nd close-up picture with a completely different terrain, was jaw-dropping. The New Horizon team have been running on adrenalin since the spacecraft went into (and thankfully came out of) safe mode. It was unfortunate that everyone was moved from APL to NASA HQ, where in reality everyone involved needed some rest to reset their minds and collect their thoughts, before starting the long task of re-writing the text books, to then be able to explain what we were seeing in the amazing pictures. I too am a little disappointed that there is a delay, but I am happy to wait for a while to let the team to recover, so they are then able to continue their exploration into the unknown.

Svetoslav Alexandrov: 07/20/2015 10:09 CDT

And while we're arguing, three new photos have just been published on the RAW website after all: ... I don't know what you think, to me it does look there's still commitment to release photos!

pete: 07/20/2015 01:02 CDT

Pluto might just be a new kind of space object i.e. a combination Comet-planet. I'm thinking this because of it's traits:1. Its untypical orbit angle 2. The tail and 3. It's youthfu craterless surface which might be due to sublimation or seasonal melting and re-freezing As it orbits the sun. What do you think?

Jere Nash: 07/20/2015 01:33 CDT

I join with the others in thanking Emily for her really incredible posts and her honest appraisal of the situation. Alan Stern needs to make this right.

Plutoresque: 07/20/2015 01:34 CDT

Many thanks Emily for a great feedback on the release of the photos. Speaking of releasing and analyzing images, crowd-sourcing is now used all the time in scientific research. The NH Team could release batches of raw images on citizen science web portals. Volunteers could then analyze the images, comment and share their discoveries on the discussion forums. Including the public would be a great PR, not only for the NH Mission, but also for future space missions. @ Pete If it is some kind of new space body, Pluto will have to be demoted a second time:)

Richard Adams: 07/20/2015 04:22 CDT

@pete: I really think we need to do the opposite - stop having to obsessively categorize everything down the the last micron. Pluto really *isn't* that surprising, for one thing. I'll concede, the level of activity apparently ongoing is a bit unexpected, but first: We expected to encounter an atmosphere. That's the *entire* reason so many of us fought so hard for this mission, at the time. Perihelion offers us a once in centuries opportunity, and we fully expected to encounter an atmosphere in situ. Furthermore, none of these processes are unknown or surprising: We know because of the Charon situation, there was a chance for a dynamic world based solely on gravitational/tidal energies. What appears the more dominant process, however, is also known, but slightly less expected: I don't think a soul believed Pluto would have as much radioactively decaying components in its core, but we know and understand those processes too. Nothing speaks to some bizarre "alt-world" - just an unusual combination of physical laws, resulting in an incredible little world. Here's the thing, and my reason for posting (again) - we'd be so much better served if we dropped the delineations and obsessive definitions. When you instead step back, and see everything as simply the result of natural laws - various interactions, at various stages - it's so much better and more rational. For example, I don't see *any* difference between our worlds, and Europa, Ganymede, Enceladus or Titan. Yet they are "moons", 'orbiting' a world that itself orbits a star. But when you take everything as simply natural results of natural processes, which can occur in almost any conceivable (or not!) way, it makes things less murky. For example, we know other stars host gas giants in very close orbits -hot Jupiters. Should they be a different class, too? Or worlds composed of carbon, whose mantles are made of literal diamond - are they, too, unique enough to be distinct? -continued due to character limit

Richard Adams: 07/20/2015 04:31 CDT

When you stop and consider that, if our "gold standard" of a planet is our own world, the Earth...? There's just one small problem, in my eyes, at least: The very closest analogues to our planet we know of today? Well, I already mentioned them: Titan - first and foremost, as close to Earth as it gets. Europa - an ocean world, beneath the ice. Enceladus - likewise. Io - geologically active, insane amounts of ongoing volcanism (and not cryovolcanoes). Now, we can add... Pluto! The planet, that isn't a planet - as a world currently enjoying processes exceptionally close to the Earth itself, far more than a dead sibling, like Mars, today. Furthermore, we also must keep in mind this universe is not so neat and tidy as we mortals might prefer. Even the distinction of stars, as opposed to planets...? While there, a very important aspect does indeed make differentiation logical -nuclear fusion- do we not know full well that, at some point, in some place, every possible celestial body's mass has existed? Meaning, almost every single last pound/kg between, say, Pluto and a 120 solar mass giant has 'been'... somewhere? The full range between star, brown/red dwarf, gas giant, terrestrial planet, or "dwarf" Plutoid? Long story short: See the cosmos as the result of all the many natural processes and physical laws, and we'll be a whole lot less shocked when something like Pluto comes along and knocks our socks off. All things can be understood by those processes, and so all things should be understood by them, first and foremost.

MisterTrent: 07/20/2015 05:48 CDT

Thanks for all of this invaluable information, Emily. Absolutely foaming at the mouth for those additional hi-res LORRI mosaic shots; the 24th can't come too soon. Personally, I feel that if the worst we can say about the NH team is that after 25 years of trying they botched the image release timing, I'll gladly cut them slack. That snafu plays is but a small blemish on this whole mission. I have been waiting since August of 1989 to see a new world, so I am OK with waiting one week longer for a few more shots, and then OK waiting months after that for the rest. A regrettable but small price to pay, considering Stern and co. actually made this dream happen, and I am just merely watching. Thanks to them we now know more in the last week than we ever did about this world, and I don't want team NH to think the community is ungrateful by asking for more- even though they have indeed given us more before Friday. Now looking at Brian May's 3D image- and it makes me forever appreciative of them for this extraordinary accomplishment. Thank you Team New Horizons for what you have done and I look forward to more releases. Thanks Emily for all your help!

Richard Adams: 07/20/2015 06:50 CDT

@Trent - For those of us who have patiently waited for 15 years, of course the delay isn't an issue. The issue is the 9999 out of 10000 who'll now *never* see any of these fantastic images because of thar one week delay, when otherwise they would've due to the immense press coverage received by NH last week - and the irreparable harm to any future missions/public opinion. That press coverage is now forever lost barring something truly impossible: Like discovering little green men on Pluto. Secondly, I previously referenced Haumea's discovery as justification for the delay. There is a difference: NASA's projects are tax payer funded, yet also, their data are things impossible to obtain otherwise. Maybe we -and the professional field itself- would be all the better served if there *weren't* team member "scientists" who make names for themselves on professional papers from mission data, but NASA instead served as a means of obtaining that data, then allowing academics to freely+openly disseminate the findings and truly *earn* their stripes. First come, first serve - first to put the pieces together deserves their accreditation over merely being employed in the right place. Such analytical team members *aren't* needed to successfully build or launch a mission, and seem to serve cross purposes for the health of astronomy. Lastly, I've been reluctant to raise this, but a major reason I've been so negative on this in particular? Emily's piece mentions that NH tried to, apparently, *hire* her out from TPS - to work on captioning or whatnot. I dunno about you, but that rubs me the wrong way - trying to hire someone doing exceptional (+vital) work out from under a non-profit, with the incentive being obtaining exclusivity & such rewards as can only come through NASA, thanks to those tax payer dollars. I don't want to speak for anyone, but based on what was written, that *really* didn't sound like anything putting NH powers that be in a positive light, at least in my eye.

Messy: 07/20/2015 07:52 CDT

Richard: Government agencies hire specialists from lobbying groups all the time. Standard practice. The Planetary society is OUR Lobbying group. (good thing too– we need one). Also all you guys who have been waiting since 1989 to see a new world.....We had DAWN go into orbit of Ceres earlier this year. Vesta in '11, too....That's one thing that always annoyed me about the Pluto demotion. I saw a British Astronomy magazine in my local B&N the other day. A special glossy issue on the Solar System. No Pluto, Ceres or Titan. As I said before, had they demoted Pluto before 2006, there is no way that New Horizons would have been even launched. Not a real planet, not important. There are 40 worlds in the Solar System, not 8.

Mister Trent: 07/20/2015 09:23 CDT

@Richard agreed sir that there is a blown opportunity here. My brother and I both work in the CA entertainment industry and amongst ourselves we have been giving differing marks at differing points to the press side of this venture over the past year- sometimes kudos where we felt they nailed it, other times dismay when we felt chances were squandered. Given my experience in the entertainment industry I am not quite convinced this is a death knell just yet on the order of losing 99.99% of the audience. The Slate photoblog (outstanding PR, the best yet!) and having the mighty Brian May post 3D images I think will sustain them for a bit if they can just get to Friday. Again, a misstep indeed- but not convinced it is a fatal one. Although I am dismayed, I understand these guys are scientists first and PT Barnums second. They are human. I just try to stress the positives- Pluto was always the people's favorite, by a MILE. Unlike say, if one were trying to publicize a mission to Eris or Ceres- Stern didn't have to create the hype from scratch. The public chose Pluto as their darling long ago. It is THEY that are interested. And now, like a quarterback who never won a super bowl who finally gets a ring, the public feels this planetary injustice has somehow been righted. We'll lose some through this, but Pluto was selected as the solar system's sentimental rock long ago- they'll be back for another look!

Rob: 07/20/2015 10:24 CDT

Papers in Science come out on Thursday, I would guess they have one already for this Thurs, that's why the briefing is then.

Paul McCarthy: 07/21/2015 01:15 CDT

Richard Adams is the one who nails it here. Even tho others above (and NASA, and NH team) don't disagree entirely, what there is a sense they still underestimate is the public's incredibly short media attention-span. Attention drops off exponentially (or should that be geometrically, or whatever) after the initial "magic moment". Coverage of images this Friday will be a fraction of last week. Vast amounts of irrecoverable planetary-exploration PR have been lost! In fact, one suddenly realises that the PS could and should perform an invaluable service to NASA, planetary exploration, their own interests, and the whole of science, by conducting some sort of a quantitative "poll", "survey" or "sample" of media coverage after the next image release and comparing it to last week! Then publish. Pick a comparable period (one hour, three, whatever PS resources will run to), and sample/survey like mad. A nice, permanently citeable, incredibly useful and influential little publishable paper would result! "Lost space-advocacy opportunities in NASA image-release policies" (Keep the audience as broad as possible.) This would be an invaluable service, undoubtedly influencing future NASA policy, and NH suddenly seems like the ideal test-bed mission/occasion! Emily; Casey; anyone? Whaddayethink?

Moonnext: 07/21/2015 05:13 CDT

Although space missions are paid by governments, I think that it is fair that the priority should be given to the PI and mission science team for publishing early and/or spectacular results, even at the cost of PO lost of momentum. Designing a mission takes time and a lot of efforts, resulting in little or no time to write papers on other subjects. Designing the instrument, testing it, crafting thousands+ of slides for NASA boards from Step1 to launch is *not* a reward for a scientist. Publishing early results from the mission is. Therefore, I'll wait patiently for the New Horizon team to release their initial paper, and eventually, have a look at their raw data and write a paper with material I made zero effort to get .

RoboZCraft: 07/21/2015 07:47 CDT

This is what I was precisely afraid of. Conditions of use for the captured images is not possible after public disclosure. Makes for all kinds of conspiracy and hoax videos hijacking what they have accomplished. People have been unsuccessful so far; you can read whatever you want into a grainy JPEG image. Regardless, Why must the researches keep quiet? They want to be the first to work with the data sets so that they may be the first to propose theories about how Pluto came to be, or otherwise set the precedent on how the terrain data is interpreted by other scientists. Lamo. What would make a conspirators day is if the grainy image did not match up with the high Rez ones. There would definitely be a backlash of people showing how mountain ranged moved or did not match up if in fact there are alien bases or monuments that were removed. I am surprised that they did not even consider that possibility when they decided to send over a grainy fail safe first. Now they have to wait for the high resolution images to come back completely before they put out more grainy pictures, just in case they have to reverse engineer them. Truly disappointed if we don't see anything but the small moons and the atmosphere for months.

Ed: 08/01/2015 05:22 CDT

I absolutely support delaying image release - at least for a reasonable period of time, in order to have "first crack". These people have invested much of their lives in this mission. It will be the crowning life-achievement for most. People who've invested so much are likely to be a bit more cautious announcing interpretation of data and images - and have greater interest in being thorough, and in choosing their words. They could be "beaten" by hours by someone with little to lose, willing to post his (her) thoughts immediately, and who is not occupied with continued mission operations. As for obtaining non-image data prior to images, I suspect that has more to do with scientific priority than with engineering efficiency.

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