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Pluto Mission Leader Challenges Neil deGrasse Tyson to a Planet Debate

The scientist in charge of NASA's New Horizons probe is already thinking about next year's Pluto flyby and the debate over the dwarf planet's status.
Image: New Horizons at Pluto
NASA's New Horizons spacecraft, shown in an artist's conception, is expected to document Pluto's surface and perhaps eruptions of ice volcanoes when it flies past the dwarf planet in July 2015.Dan Durda / SwRI / JHUAPL / NASA

There's a year and a month to go before NASA's New Horizons probe flies by Pluto, but that rendezvous is already one of the big events for Alan Stern, the scientist in charge of the $728 million mission.

He's also pressing for a debate with astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson over Pluto's planetary standing — and for something completely different, he's even giving some thought to Father's Day on June 15.

Stern has so many projects in the air that he sometimes seems more like a juggler than a researcher. In addition to his roles as New Horizons' principal investigator and a planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, he helped create Uwingu, a commercial venture focusing on space education and research; the Golden Spike Company, which is planning private-sector moon missions; and the Suborbital Applications Research Group, which is helping researchers get ready for suborbital space studies.

You can hear more about Stern's juggling act at 8 p.m. ET Wednesday during an hourlong chat on "Virtually Speaking Science."

Progress toward Pluto

The next couple of months will see an uptick in the New Horizons mission, which literally got off the ground back in 2006, before the International Astronomical Union reclassified Pluto as a dwarf planet, and is due to fly past Pluto on July 14, 2015.

"We're about to wake the spacecraft up" for its final checkout before next year's encounter, Stern told NBC News. After the weeks-long checkout, the probe will be put back into hibernation for the last time in August, with a wakeup call set for December.

On July 16, Stern and other luminaries will give lectures on the Pluto mission at the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum in Washington. "It's a kickoff to the 'Year of Encounter,'" he said. Another kickoff event will take place at NASA Headquarters on Aug. 25, the date when New Horizons is due to zoom beyond Neptune's orbit. It's also the 25th anniversary of Voyager 2's Neptune flyby, and Voyager project scientist Ed Stone will be on hand.

"He's going to pass the baton of exploration from Voyager to New Horizons," Stern said.

Image: Alan Stern
Planetary scientist Alan Stern has been training to do research during a suborbital spaceflight.SwRI

Stern said the spate of discoveries from NASA's Kepler mission, including the first known gas dwarf planets, illustrates the "amazing diversity" of planets in the universe. In his view, Pluto and the solar system's other dwarfs deserve a place at the planetary table, alongside giants like Jupiter and terrestrial worlds like Earth. And he's ready to debate the issue with astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, host of the "Cosmos" TV series and a prominent figure on the "not-a-planet" side of the fence.

"I am challenging him to the equivalent of the 'Thrilla in Manila,'" Stern said. "Before New Horizons gets to Pluto, I want him to accept the debate. ... 'Cosmos' is over next week, so he's got some time on his hands."

Tyson participated in a "Great Planet Debate" in 2008, but Stern wasn't in on that event. The pro-Pluto side was argued by the Planetary Science Institute's Mark Sykes. Neither side swayed the other, and there's no guarantee that the result would be any different in a follow-up match.

Name a crater for Dad?

Stern's other focus is Uwingu and its current campaign to crowd-source names for Martian craters. The commercial venture collects a fee for each name that's added to the map, and redistributes half of the revenue in the form of grants for space education, exploration and research.

Uwingu is following up on last month's Mother's Day crater-naming campaign with a "Dads Rock Mars" promotion for Father's Day. About 14,000 names already have been added to Uwingu's Mars map, which is supposed to be sent to the Red Planet's surface by the Mars One venture and a student-led mission called "Time Capsule to Mars."

"We have named more than 10 times as many craters on the surface of Mars as astronomers have in the last 50 years."

The idea that celestial name games are being used to raise money has sparked sharp criticism from the IAU, but Stern said the "people's map of Mars" seemed to be gaining momentum.

"We have named more than 10 times as many craters on the surface of Mars as astronomers have in the last 50 years," he said. "We're just filling it, pardon the pun, at astronomical rates."

The Uwingu Fund has also been distributing grants at a steady clip, with almost $100,000 allocated so far. This week, the company announced that 11 students working on Ph.D.'s in planetary science would receive travel grants to present their research at scientific conferences.

Stern said the venture's primary aim was to increase public engagement in space efforts.

"Most people don't want to be deeply involved in space, they just want to do something cool," he said. "They want to 'touch' space, but they don't want to live space. Uwingu is all about reaching out to that audience. ... We're not just about naming things in space, and you're going to see some very different stuff beginning this summer."

Correction for 7:35 p.m. ET June 4: I've revised the New Horizons mission cost after getting the right figure from Alan Stern. Sorry about that!

Planetary scientist Alan Stern will discuss NASA's New Horizons mission and Uwingu with NBC News' Alan Boyle at 8 p.m. ET Wednesday on "Virtually Speaking Science," a talk show airing on BlogTalkRadio and in the Second Life virtual world. You can also ask him about suborbital space research or lunar exploration. If you miss the live show, never fear: The podcast will be archived on the BlogTalkRadio website and on iTunes.

Last month's "Virtually Speaking Science" lineup included a chat with Rand Simberg about space policy and his recently published book, "Safe Is Not an Option: Overcoming the Futile Obsession With Getting Everyone Back Alive That Is Killing Our Expansion Into Space." Listen to the podcast, or check out the NBC News interview.