Daily Planet’s Dan Riskin preps for our first encounter with Pluto

RiskinNASA may have other reasons for launching a spacecraft to gather high-resolution images of Pluto, but Daily Planet‘s Dan Riskin has one of the better reasons I’ve heard:  “Now we’ll know what crayon to use.”

He’s talking about the generations of kids who learned about the solar system in colouring books, who could use any colour they wanted for that last orb because the only pictures we had of the planet three billion miles away showed it as a small dot.

Pluto is the last of the original nine planets to be explored, nearly a decade after the New Horizons spacecraft was launched to gather the clearest images we’ll have of the now-demoted dwarf planet.

Discovery will air their Pluto: First Encounter special on July 15, the day after New Horizon’s closest approach to Pluto, when high resolution images will be available. Dr. Riskin will be at mission control in Maryland for that one shot fly-by — New Horizons will get closer to Pluto than its moons, but it can’t slow down.

Riskin himself is an evolutionary biologist who studied vampire bats running, leading to one of the kookiest bat videos you might run across. He stumbled into one of the coolest jobs, playing co-host to Daily Planet’s jumble of scientific stories so outside of his bat-focused research.

“In science, it’s such a full time job to watch your corner of the rug, you can’t explore the rest of the building. Discovery allows me to explore my scientific curiosity. It’s fun to be an amateur at it. I don’t have the same stakes I do in my field. That’s the journey we’re taking our viewers on, and I’m on the same journey.”

He calls space exploration “the coolest thing you can do with your time,” something he’s since shared with his young son after buying a telescope of his own. “Robots are exploring our solar system. That’s one of the biggest things you can do as a society.”

An unexpected, temporary shutdown of the New Horizons probe last week has added to the dramatic tension of this one chance to have a successful mission, our first glimpse of a new planet — yes, I’m calling it a planet  dammit — since Voyager 2 showed us Neptune in 1989.  We’ve already started seeing images from New Horizons, and on July 14 we hope to see it up close and personal.

Despite its demotion, only eight months after New Horizons was launched, Riskin calls it a special planet.  “Pluto is an outlier in every sense of the word,” said Riskin. “It has a tilted orbit, a giant moon locked into a static spot in the sky, and four more exotic moons spinning around in chaos. Everything we know about Pluto is already super-weird, and we haven’t even seen it up close yet. This is going to be amazing.”

It’s also a very American planet, says Riskin. New Horizons carries the ashes of Clyde Tombaugh who discovered “Planet X” in 1930 — the first American to discover a planet.  “People got fired up by that.”

Riskin met his son and daughter, calling them the “most charming people you’ve ever met in your life”, who showed him Tombaugh’s telescope made of grain silo parts and Coke cans. They, along with many Americans and Pluto supporters, are deeply disappointed at the demotion, but it hasn’t tempered the excitement of New Horizons for those of us who always wondered what crayon to use, and always wonder what’s out there to explore.

You can catch Discovery’s Pluto: First Encounter on July 15.