Staerkel Planetarium hosts streaming of New Horizons flyby confirmation


Staerkel Planetarium at Parkland College hosted an open house-style event for attendees to view a live stream of the New Horizons control room for confirmation of its flyby mission on Tuesday.

By Ben Lash

There was considerable excitement and anticipation felt by many astronomers across the country on Tuesday, as NASA awaited confirmation from the New Horizons Spacecraft on its flyby mission of Pluto. 

Some of that excitement and anticipation was felt locally at Pluto Palooza, an event held at the Staerkel Planetarium at Parkland College. From 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., local families and astronomy enthusiasts were able to watch live feeds of the NASA control room as they awaited confirmation, as well as learn more about the New Horizons mission and Pluto itself.

“We’re the second-largest planetarium in the state of Illinois, with seating for up to 128 people,” said Cindy Reynolds, operational assistant at Staerkel Planetarium.

“The drone is basically on autopilot,” said David Leake, director of Staerkel Planetarium. “You can’t send in a message saying ‘turn left and take a picture’. It’ would take 4 hours for the message to get there, and then 4 hours for data to come back.”

The New Horizons Spacecraft launched back in 2006, when Pluto was still considered a planet. Regardless, NASA engineers and scientists have been waiting excitedly for years for New Horizons to complete its flyby of the dwarf planet.

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    “Basically we’re running through a dark room taking pictures as fast as we can,” said Leake, regarding the spacecraft’s flyby. “And then it’s going to turn its antenna back to earth and ‘phone home.’ Sending that signal and us picking it up means everything’s connected and it can start sending pictures.”

    Inside the planetarium, attendees were shown various videos from NASA relating to the New Horizons mission as well as other tasks and operations, such as work done in the International Space Station.

    “We’re playing the live NASA stream,” said Tania Swigart, an operator of the projection equipment in the planetarium. “I’m going to be here this Friday though, doing the show following up from this event. We’re going to have the new Pluto images, so I think we’re going to have a lot of people come back for that event. I think we’re going to be in for a busy weekend.”

    Outside in the planetarium’s lobby, families could participate in activities that involved finding Pluto in a telescoping image of the night sky. Other activities involved learning about the weight difference between what is felt on the surface of the Earth and the surface of Pluto.

    NASA received confirmation that the New Horizons spacecraft survived its flyby of Pluto close to 9 p.m. Tuesday night. This confirmation arrived approximately 13 hours after the actual flyby took place.

    Two hours before the confirmation arrived, Leake said humorously, “We’re hoping that it survived and didn’t hit a moon we didn’t know about it or something like that.”

    The confirmation was met with celebration by the crowd that had gathered at Staerkel Planetarium throughout the evening. Leake said NASA hopes to receive and release a number of photos of Pluto from the New Horizons flyby, and Staerkel Planetarium hopes to display some of these photos during their show this Friday. 

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