Feb. 1, 2012 at 11:21 AM ET
The next three years just might be prime time for poor little Pluto, thanks to NASA's New Horizons mission — and if the leaders of that mission are successful, a brand-new Pluto postage stamp will be part of the celebration. But they need your help.
Today marks the start of an online petition campaign at Change.org, calling for the creation of a stamp commemorating the $700 million mission and its 2015 Pluto flyby. It would mark only the second time the dwarf planet has appeared on a U.S. postage stamp. The first time was in 1991, when a 29-cent stamp labeled Pluto as "Not Yet Explored."
Back then, some planetary scientists saw that stamp as a challenge — and that gave an early boost to the efforts that eventually led to New Horizons' launch in 2006. The mission's principal investigator, Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute, even included one of the old stamps as a pint-sized payload on the spacecraft. Now the postal connection is coming full circle, just in time to render that "Not Yet Explored" label obsolete.
"We're asking people to sign the petition because the post office considers not just the merits of a new stamp proposal, but also whether it is supported by a significant number of people," Stern said in today's kickoff announcement. "This is a chance for us all to celebrate what American space exploration can achieve through hard work, technical excellence, the spirit of scientific inquiry and the uniquely human drive to explore."
The petition, along with the formal stamp proposal, would be sent to the U.S. Postal Service's Citizens' Stamp Advisory Committee, which sifts through thousands of suggestions and recommends which subjects should be transformed into commemorative stamps. Last year, for example, one set of stamps paid tribute to Mercury astronaut Alan Shepard's history-making flight in 1961, as well as the Messenger mission to Mercury.
It takes about three years to move from the submission of a proposal to the issuance of a new stamp — which is why Stern and his colleagues are making a big push now for a stamp that would be unveiled in 2015. The more signatures they can get, the better the chances of winning the approval of the committee and the postmaster general.
"If we get 10,000 signatures, we'll get a stamp — that's the impression I get," Stern told me. "But we're aiming for 100,000."
Stern said he'd like to turn in the signatures as well as the stamp proposal during the week of March 13, which marks the 82nd anniversary of the announcement of Pluto's discovery. That's not entirely out of the question, even though the International Astronomical Union reclassified Pluto as a dwarf planet in 2006. After all, how many other celestial bodies have been the subject of letter-writing campaigns, legislative action, street protests and petitions by planetary scientists?
Dan Durda, an artist and space scientist at the Southwest Research Institute whose works appear on the New Horizons website and in many other places (including my book, "The Case for Pluto"), has drawn up a concept for the Pluto stamp — but if the stamp proposal is approved, the stamp's design may well be out of his hands.
"Stamp designing is an unusual art form requiring exacting skill in portraying a subject within very small dimensions," the Postal Service says. "Due to the demands of stamp design and reproduction requirements, it is our policy not to review nor accept unsolicited artwork."
The design isn't uppermost in Stern's mind right now. "You know, I'm sure it will turn out fine," he told me. "Our goal is to commemorate the historic nature of the mission and celebrate U.S. leadership in space exploration. And involve the public."
That's where you come in.
"Sign the petition, and mention it on Facebook," Stern said. "Let's see how high we can drive the numbers for Pluto and for space exploration."
Alan Boyle is msnbc.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter or adding Cosmic Log's Google+ page to your circle. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for other worlds.