Alien Arrivals

They're so cute when they're young.
They’re so cute when they’re young.
The last time a meteorite slammed into earth with any ferocity it happened in Tunguska. That event flattened trees and led to much wild speculation as to the possible cause. Answers ranged from the ludicrous, ALIENS ATTACK, to the interesting, antimatter, to the logical, a meteorite. One thing that couldn’t be denied was that the blast laid waste to a forest as though a bowling ball had been slammed into a sculpture made of toothpicks. Just in case it comes up I’ll break out the theories for you. The Alien Attack one is the funniest. It involves, just like ancient alien believers claim happened at Sodom and Gomorrah, a nuclear attack. Because, well, because aliens would travel billions of miles to get here and then nuke an abandoned forest to …… well, they’re aliens, we’re not supposed to understand them. For the record there has never been any radioactivity found there so you can ignore those people. The anit-matter theory was espoused by scientist and author Robert Heinlein in his book “Expanded Universe.” While the effect, flattened forest, fit the known facts the cause, anti-matter, did not. As one scientist said, if anti-matter reacted with matter it would do so immediately or, if it was contained in a rock or cylinder, much later. Either way it wouldn’t have done so so neatly above the forest. A meteorite matches both the effect, flattened forest, and the cause, exploded due to heat, friction and kinetic energy near the ground. Of course logic and facts never deter the people who demand that every tragedy have deeper significance, so there are a ton of idiots posting stuff about UFOs and government controlled secret space guns and so on.

It amazes me that they can walk upright and breathe at the same time.

Anyway, the one thing that caught most people’s attention was the amount of footage generated by dash cams in Russian cars. Our pal, Ian O’Neill, has the reason why.

Are all Russians trainee meteorite hunters? Do they have their dash cams installed to chase down the next tornado Storm Chasers-style? Despite being perfect for capturing a rare fireball, the fondness Russian car owners have for dash cams has nothing to do with creating perfectly-timed videos of rampaging space rocks.

Lawlessness and police corruption are the driving force behind getting a dash cam installed. According to an Al Jazeera English exposé last year, chaos on Russian roads is the reason why there are an estimated 1 million Russian cars sporting dash cams. New York blogger and Russian native Marina Galperina wrote a captivating piece about the dash cam culture in her home country, arguing that they are “Russia’s last hope for civility and survival on the road.”

Galperina adds:

The conditions of Russian roads are perilous, with insane gridlock in cities and gigantic ditches, endless swamps and severe wintry emptiness on the backroads and highways. Then there are large, lawless areas you don’t just ride into, the police with a penchant for extortion and deeply frustrated drivers who want to smash your face.
In an environment like this, it’s little wonder that having an unblinking eye on your dashboard is essential for your morning commute.

Also, inadvertently, the dash cams that caught the Russian meteor in the act have become a critical tool in understanding where this object came from and how it caused so much damage over a populated region.

A friend of mine lives outside Moscow. She says going to buy groceries is like living an episode of Mad Max. She does not believe this is a good thing.

So what does all this have to do with the pic of baby Pluto that’s adorning this page? Just a quick reminder that the rock that slammed into Russia is a mere pebble compared to the rocks that orbit our sun. In fact it is tiny compared to the rocks that orbit Pluto, and that’s not even a planet any more.

Anyway, two of the rocks orbiting our famous former planet are in need of names. And that’s where you come in. Ian O’Neill, he’s been busy this week, has the whole story.

Pluto may have been demoted, but its family is getting bigger and bigger. Now, two of the dwarf planet’s tiniest moons need names — but rather than leaving the Plutonian satellites’ naming ceremony to astronomers, that honor has fallen to you.

The discoverers of Pluto’s smallest moons — measuring only 20 to 30 kilometers (15 to 20 miles) across — have designated the moons “P4″ and “P5,” but it’s about time that they grow up and get some real names. Discovered in 2011 and 2012 by the Hubble Space Telescope, this tiny duo joins Charon, Nix and Hydra in a very close-knit family of objects orbiting Pluto.

All of the objects were named after Hades and the underworld in ancient Greek mythology. Hades, god of the underworld, who was also known as “Plouton” (meaning “Rich One”), was Latinized by the Romans to, simply, Pluto. And the ninth planetary body from the sun was given that name by 11-year old schoolgirl Venetia Burney shortly after the small world was discovered by Clyde Tombaugh at Lowell Observatory in 1930. The mythological name for the dark and cold world on the outskirts of the solar system has now been inherited by Pluto’s satellites.

So, the SETI Institute has launched a new website called “Pluto Rocks” to decide new names for P4 and P5. Of the possible mythological names, the following can be selected: Acheron, Alecto, Cerberus, Erebus, Eurydice, Hercules, Hypnos, Lethe, Obol, Orpheus, Persephone and Styx. You can also make your own suggestions.

“The Greeks were great storytellers and they have given us a colorful cast of characters to work with,” said Mark Showalter, Senior Research Scientist at the Carl Sagan Center of the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif., in a press release.

Voting will remain open till Feb. 25, when the P4/P5 discovery team will take the winning suggestions to the International Astronomical Union so the satellite pair can officially be named.

On Monday (Feb. 11) at 11 a.m., two astronomers involved in the P4/P5 discoveries — Mark Showalter and Hal Weaver, of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland — will be available live to take your questions about the naming of these moons via a special Google+ hangout. If you want to get involved, be sure to use the #PlutoRocks hashtag on Twitter, the SETI Institute Facebook page and the Google hangout.

The naming of P4 and P5 may seem frivolous, but this more than a public outreach project. As NASA’s New Horizons probe flies through interplanetary space toward Pluto, in July 2015 the world will be awestruck by the first close-up photographs of dwarf planet Pluto and its largest companion Charon. The Plutonian moons will likely become household names (and the debate as to the planetary status of Pluto will likely be reignited).

But like any story from the underworld, there is a sinister back-story.

Last year, when Hubble spotted P4 and P5, concern mounted for the possibility of more, sub-resolution debris that may be hanging in Pluto orbit. The current plan for New Horizons is to fly straight between Pluto and Charon (only 6,200 miles from the surface of Pluto, pictured top), but if there’s a cloud (or ring) of debris or many smaller moonlets, there could be a substantial collision risk. This has prompted the NASA New Horizons Team — headed by Alan Stern — to formulate a “bail out” plan should the risk be deemed too great. This means mission managers may opt to command New Horizons to carry out its much anticipated flyby further away from Pluto and any potential dangers that lay in wait.

So, for now, astronomers are carefully surveying the volume of space around Pluto, looking for any hint of the hypothetical debris that may be hiding there.

Just to give you some perspective, if one of those moons hit Earth it could wipe out around 60% to 90% of all life. That should inspire you to wander through the Greek Underworld to find a name or two.

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