Physics Pair Probes Pluto

Chalk dust meets space dust as Mitch Hain (2011) and Nathaniel Cunningham work with data from Hubble Space Telescope on an Olin Hall blackboard.

A Nebraska Wesleyan physics professor and student have conducted exciting new research on one of the slipperiest subjects in our solar system: Pluto.

Pluto, which isn’t a planet, has Charon, which isn’t a moon. Charon doesn’t fit the true definition of a moon because its relationship with Pluto is a little quirky. In most planet-moon pairings, their barycenter, or center of mass, lies beneath the planet’s surface because the planet’s mass is so much greater than its moon’s. But with Pluto and Charon, the barycenter lies outside either body.

This unusual relationship categorizes them not as planet and moon, but as double-dwarf-planets.

Likewise, the research relationship between NWU Assistant Professor of Physics Nathaniel Cunningham and Mitch Hain (’11) of Lincoln, who published their work with the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo., in the January 2012 issue of The Astronomical Journal, didn’t fit your typical professor-undergraduate mold.

Hain got the rare opportunity as an undergraduate to work with data from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope and play a major role in some of the most advanced Pluto research. He took data from Hubble’s new and highly sensitive Cosmic Origins Spectograph and studied the ultraviolet light reflecting off Pluto. Using Hain’s results, the research team discovered that Pluto’s surface could contain complex molecules never detected before. These molecules could be responsible for Pluto’s ruddy color.

“For Mitch to have the opportunity to be the one answering some of the most important questions in this project probably doesn’t happen to undergraduates very often,” Cunningham said.

“It was an opportunity to explore some new concepts, take what I already knew from class, and try to put the puzzle together,” said Hain, who is now studying mechanical engineering at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo.

While Cunningham and Hain made use of the Hubble Space Telescope, another of NASA’s advanced instruments continued on its quiet commute.

NASA launched the New Horizons spacecraft in 2006. Now beyond Uranus’s orbit, New Horizons is on course for a July 14, 2015, rendezvous with Pluto.

“I hope to keep the collaboration going,” Cunningham said of his relationship with the Southwest Research Institute, which funded Hain’s position on the Pluto research team. “When New Horizons flies by Pluto, I’m hoping to have the opportunity to help with that research.” When that day comes, Cunningham may be able to bring another lucky NWU physics student along for what promises to be a wild and enlightening ride.