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The Great Planet Debate

Live from...the Hubble Space Telescope

The original HST observations are targeted for March 1996. At that time, 4 planets - Jupiter, Uranus, Neptune and Pluto - are available targets for study. STScI suggested looking at planets because more distant, fainter galaxies and other objects require many more orbits to secure data that's likely to be scientifically significant. Planets are also more familiar to students - and Jupiter and Uranus will have been introduced during the Kuiper activities.

The introductory video will ask 4 astronomers and educators associated with STScI to serve as PLANET ADVOCATES to lay out the case for observing one or other of the candidate planets, and provide documentary reports on what's already known, and what could be discovered. (Through comments appearing on this page, HST staff astronomer Alex Storrs provides a preview of some of the arguments for and against the various observations.) Alex Storrs also wrote an explanation of why the Hubble Space Telescope is specially equipped to make certain planetary observations.

Simultaneously, NASA's K-12 Internet Initiative will activate special on-line resources to support Live from the Hubble Space Telescope. Organized much like LFS, students will find a great deal of information on the planets, HST and STScI. There'll be pointers to the extensive astronomical materials STScI and others already provide on-line. This information is available here on these Web pages.

But most importantly, students can actively participate in a discussion to brainstorm, research, develop and deliver suggestions about which planet to observe with the 3 Live from the Hubble Space Telescope orbits.

Individual students and classes will be able to collaborate from sites all across America. We also anticipate involvement from Europe, since the European Space Agency contributes 20% of STScI support and participates fully in all HST activities. Students will engage in activities from the somewhat trivial (Does one group want to be known as the "Pluto-crats", another the "By Jovians"?) to the more significant. The discussion groups will be (lightly) moderated by astronomer-mentors and educators with experience with faciliating on-line collaboration. Access to expert scientific support will be brokered by Passport to Knowledge so that students can develop suggestions which conform to guidelines for professional research on the HST which must focus on significant scientific questions, be achievable within the number of orbits and time assigned, and not duplicate existing research. STScI already posts on-line materials to assist researchers in submitting proposals. Passport to Knowledge will work with STScI to adapt these for student information.

By December, we need to arrive at a consensus about which planet(s) to observe, and what research to suggest. A final determination will be made by group consisting of educators working with Passport to Knowledge, astronomers from STScI and student representatives communicating via the Internet.


Alex Storrs, STScI staff astronomer, and specialist on planets
On the pros and cons of observing the candidate planets:

"I admit that Jupiter at first seems the hands-on favorite. It's the biggest and most dynamic planet in our solar system. Through the Hubble telescope, Jupiter fills the screen. All other planets require a fair amount of analysis to figure out just what you're seeing. Some of the things that we can observe on Jupiter are very dynamic and they change quite rapidly - such as the cloud patterns. Even though we've looked at Jupiter quite a lot already, it's worthwhile to go back at a later date to see how cloud patterns have changed from the last time it was observed. These observations in the middle of March would be pretty separated from most other observations. But for Jupiter, the big deal is Galileo. The Galileo spacecraft is arriving at Jupiter at the end of 1995 and is starting its long tour of the Jovian system and there are already a lot of HST projects to back this up. Galileo will still be on its tour in March, and perhaps we'll simultaniously be able to image some of the satellites with the HST, along with Galileo. Jupiter's moon, Io, also has a few active volcanoes and we could observe the effects of those depending on how we arrange the imaging. It will be of great interest to see what's happening through the Hubble right when Galileo is there.

Uranus has not been quite so heavily observed. The planet itself is, perhaps, a little bland and boring: however, there are those rings (ed. first discovered from the Kuiper.) Uranus has rings much like Saturn only thinner. But we don't exactly know their colors and composition. A worthwhile project would be to use the HST spectrometer to figure some things out, for the first time. Look at the rings, look at the sky beyond the rings, and compare them. It would take only one orbit to do this, and it would produce relatively quick but significant results, and likely help us determine what the rings are made of.

Neptune's a hot topic. Neptune is ever-changing and dynamic like Jupiter. So it would probably be beneficial to do the same sorts of observations and procedures with Neptune that have been done with Jupiter. We can see how the cloud patterns have changed and shifted. Unfortunately, Neptune is not very big. It might not be that impressive but it would still be pretty useful to get 3 orbits worth of images of Neptune.

Pluto is also interesting but not nearly as dynamic as the other outer planets. Visible changes, if any, only emerge over a broader scale of time. There was supposed to be a "Pluto Express" spacecraft, but funding problems mean NASA may not be able to start any new missions, any time soon. So all the new information that they're going to get about Pluto in my professional lifetime will have to come from the Hubble. And this would sure be a chance to do some of that on a little known planet.

Jupiter can be analyzed even from the raw data, pretty much as it comes in, in real-time, which makes it unique. It also only takes one orbit around Jupiter to gain interesting new information on it.

But I think there's a good case for looking at Uranus and those rings. Taking low resolution spectra of the rings would be a definite "first" and not easy to accomplish. The raw data in itself won't be very impressive but with a little bit of time, we should be able to analyze it pretty well. The slope and shape of that spectrum could give us an idea of the sizes of particles in the ring. We might be able to figure out whether the rings are rock and dust alone, or whether there's a mixture of all sorts of different materials. The rings may not have formed from different processes than the rings around other planets, but they probably evolved differently. Uranus' atmosphere causes the rings to move and shape themselves in different ways than in other planets."

Credits and Contacts

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