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Alan Stern: Beyond Pluto

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Alan Stern

AAAS Fellow Alan Stern has had his eye on the far reaches of the solar system for years. Now his vision has started to come into focus for the rest of us.

Stern, the Associate Vice President of Space Science and Engineering at the Southwest Research Institute, has had a long career in planetary science. He’s been the scientific lead on more than a dozen NASA missions and was recently named to the National Science Board, the National Science Foundation’s governing body.

He hopes to go into space himself aboard the private venture Virgin Galactic before long. He’s also been a AAAS elected Fellow since 2007 -- peer recognition he says he was “gratified and honored” to receive.

But these days he’s best known as the principal investigator for the New Horizons space probe that’s making its way through the Kuiper Belt, at the far edges of our solar system. Launched in 2006, the probe’s 2015 fly-by of Pluto gave humans their first close-up view of that distant world. Then controllers redirected the spacecraft toward a roughly 30-kilometer-long object dubbed Ultima Thule, roughly 4 billion miles from the Sun. New Horizons buzzed past Ultima Thule on Jan. 1., making it the most distant object ever explored.

For now.

 

What drew you to astronomy and planetary science originally?

I was always interested in this since I was a child. I was kind of swept off my feet by the opening of the exploration of the solar system by robotic and human missions, and I wanted to be a part of that scientifically.

 

New Horizons has been a fascinating mission. What do you think has been its biggest revelation to this point?

I suspect the finding that the small planets can be as complex as big planets is probably at the top of the list.

 

Where does it go from here?

We hope to have another fly-by further out in the Kuiper Belt. We have to write a proposal to NASA to continue the mission further, and if that’s approved, then we’ll find a target.

 

NASA is one of the agencies caught up in the current government shutdown. How is that affecting New Horizons?

We’re in good shape. In the short term, in the next couple of months, we have our funding, and New Horizons will continue as planned.

 

As a longtime AAAS member, how would you describe the value of the organization for someone deciding whether to join?

AAAS provides tremendous value to its members, creating a scientific community, sharing important news, advocating for science policy and science funding, and socializing relevant issues of the day. In my view, every working scientist should be a member of AAAS.

 

What advice would you offer someone considering a scientific career today? 

Very generally, I would say follow your heart, follow your passion. Go into what you’re most excited about; and use that as your energy to power your career.

 

Are you still slated to fly with Virgin Galactic? 

That’s the plan. We have a research program which involves microgravity and biomedical research on Virgin Galactic, and I’m looking forward to flying with them once they begin commercial services.

 

If you were the head of NASA and had the budget, where would you explore next?

I think there is a huge opportunity in the [robotic] exploration of ocean worlds and the exploration of the Kuiper Belt. I’d rank those our two top priorities. With regard to ocean worlds, it’s the possibility of discovering astrobiology -- the discovery of the development of life elsewhere in the solar system. With regard to the Kuiper Belt, it’s a treasure trove for understanding the formation of planets and the history of our solar system.

I think the next step in human exploration is to establish a beachhead on the moon. I think before we go to Mars, we need to establish a lunar outpost and use that as a stepping stone for further exploration farther away … I think it’s entirely reasonable that we could establish a lunar outpost in the early to mid-2020s.

 

Do you still hope Pluto will get bumped back up to a planet?

That’s a silly question. Phil Metzger, a planetary scientist down in Florida, has done a literature survey showing that not a single planetary science paper has ever respected the IAU definition. Not a single paper. Not one, out of thousands of papers. And you and other journalists should learn that planetary scientists consider Pluto another planet and quit asking that silly question about whether votes back in 2006 make a difference.

 

You’ve been involved with various private space ventures. How do you see the private sector and traditional government-led space exploration missions intersecting and interacting in the next decade or two?

I think that’s synergistic. I think government and private-led activities will both expand. They give us a lot more options for not only conducting science but also expanding the exploration options.

 

Where do you see space exploration going in the next decade or so?

I think the future is bright. Space exploration is likely to really accelerate because of the private activities combined with NASA’s goals for exploration, and I look forward to a pretty exciting decade ahead. 

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Matt Smith