Mainers Celebrate New Horizons Arrival at Pluto with 'Solar System' Dash

Jul 14, 2015

HOULTON, Maine - Soon, earthlings will witness the most detailed images of Pluto they've ever seen. That's because the New Horizons space craft, which left earth nine years ago, finally flew past the tiny planet on its closest approach at approximately 7:50 a.m. Tuesday, before leaving the solar system for good.

The first pictures are due back to earth on Wednesday morning, and science fans in northern Maine - home to one of the biggest scale models of the solar system in the world - are marking the occasion with a bit of nerdy pageantry:  As New Horizons transmits the pictures, runners will attempt to keep up in a "light speed" dash across the solar system model, from Houlton to Presque Isle.

"It's not a super fast pace, but it's certainly something, for 39 miles, that will wear away at your body," says Evan Graves.

"And you're going to do this for 39 miles," this reporter says.

"Thirty-nine miles. That's the goal," he says.

That's marathoner Evan Graves - and yours truly - running at "light speed." For this solar system model that spans a 40-odd-mile stretch of Route 1 in Aroostook County, that's a pace of about 8 minutes and 20 seconds per mile.

"Well, we just passed Earth," I note.

"We just passed Earth so I think we're good. You're good," Graves laughs.

"Yeah. I think that's enough." I'm all tuckered out after several million space miles, but Graves will run the whole way - more than 4 billion scale miles, from model Pluto in Houlton to model Earth in Presque Isle. In terrain terms, that's just under 40 miles - significantly more than the Boston Marathon, which Graves has run three times.
 

Evan Graves practices running the route.
Credit Nick Woodward / MPBN

Other runners will join him for part of the way, jumping in from Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars, as Graves sets the pace to the home planet. In his hand will be a thumb drive, which symbolizes the images traveling at the speed of light from the New Horizons craft into NASA's monitors, where scientists impatiently wait.

And things are looking good; after a getting a gravity boost from Jupiter, scientists say there's practically no chance that New Horizons will careen off course, or go somewhere it shouldn't.

"We're not going to miss," says Alan Stern. "We're currently on a track that's so accurate that if I compared it to a trip from Los Angeles to New York it would be like flying through a bulls-eye the size of a marble."

No one has more riding on the mission than Stern, who is leading the New Horizons expedition and the team 200 scientists working on it. The craft, he says, can take on data like a "fire hose."  It will collect so much data on the close fly by, that only about 1 percent of it can be sent home in any single day.

"The data will keep raining down, day after day and week after week, and we'll be making new discoveries about Pluto and its moons, the origin of the solar system across the rest of this year and much of next year," Stern says. "It's like Christmas every day."

But perhaps no one is more excited over what will be revealed from the New Horizons mission than University of Maine at Presque Isle science professor, and space fan, Kevin McCartney. "Send me to Mars!"

"Would you really like to go to space?" I ask.

"I would love to go to space," he says, "and I think, as human beings, we all want to explore and do things new."

McCartney was instrumental in getting the Aroostook solar system model built in the first place. He's also the driving force behind Wednesday's light-speed dash. And each year, McCartney holds holds an event called "Planet Head Day" where he and other participants shave their heads and paint them like the planets of our solar system.

"I always have my head painted as Pluto," he says, "but the artist who paints my head can do whatever they want because we do not know what Pluto looks like. And so when we get that signal that will be the first clear shot we'll have of the surface features of Pluto. Ever."

The New Horizons craft is expected to reach its closest fly-by position to Pluto at approximately 10 minutes before 8:00 Tuesday morning. And then the race is on.