• Glen Fountain, a native of Arlington, Kansas, gave a presentation on Pluto and the New Horizons spacecraft Saturday at the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Museum. Fountain is the project manager for the craft that recently gave invaluable data about the dwarf planet.

  • Glen Fountain, project manager for the New Horizons' Pluto Mission, explains the relative size of Pluto while giving a demonstration in the Discovery Room of the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Museum on August 29, 2015.

  • A crowd of 100 or so people gathered to hear Glen Fountain, project manager for the New Horizons spacecraft, speak in the Discovery Room of the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Museum on August 29, 2015.

  • Glen Fountain, project manager for the New Horizons' Pluto Mission, speaks in the Discovery Room of the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Museum on August 29, 2015. Fountain is a native to Arlington, Kansas.

  • Loni Keever, of Newton, laughs during Fountain’s presentation in the Discovery Room of the Cosmosphere.

  • Charley McCue, of Hutchinson, claps at the conclusion of Glen Fountain's presentation about Pluto in the Discovery Room of the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Museum on August 29, 2015.

Fountain: Mission to Pluto opens eyes

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Glen Fountain, a Reno County native and project manager of the New Horizons mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt, said the early data from the space probe is raising new questions that will hopefully be answered as more data is transmitted back to Earth.

"As science often does, when you answer one set of questions, you raise another," Fountain said after giving a presentation to nearly 100 people – most of them current or future educators – Saturday at the Cosmosphere.

"The biggest surprise is that the surface on Pluto is really young," at least on a geological scale, he said. "You would think Pluto would not be that active.

"Where is the energy source for some of this geologic activity?" he asked. "We now know there are mountains on Pluto that are 10,000 feet high."

He and others looking at the data as it is slowly transmitted by the space probe hope a possible answer to that question – and many others – may be in the more than 90 percent of the probe's data remaining to send back to scientists.

"We're going to be opening Christmas presents for the next year," Fountain said.

Fountain is most excited for higher-resolution photos showing specifics of Pluto's surface.

For most of the time since its discovery by fellow Kansan Clyde Tombaugh in 1930, Pluto has been considered an oddball in the solar system: no other rocky objects like it were known so far out in the solar system, and its orbit is both more elliptical than the eight previously discovered planets and at an angle to their orbits.

But since the 1990s, enough other Kuiper Belt objects like Pluto have been discovered to outnumber the planets and their moons.

"Who's the oddball now?" Fountain joked.

The discovery of those other Kuiper Belt objects was the trigger for more interest in a mission to Pluto. Five missions were canceled between 1990 and 1997, but there was pressure from the scientific community to send a probe to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt.

At $722 million, New Horizons cost less than many new professional football stadiums, Fountain noted. The spacecraft is tremendously fast, passing the moon's orbit after nine hours and Jupiter in 13 months, the fastest to ever achieve that feat. That speed was the greatest risk to accomplishing the mission, as hitting something as small as a grain of sand at that speed could have been disastrous.

When astronomers discovered two previously unknown moons around Pluto while New Horizons was in transit, the people involved in the project started to worry about space dust more, Fountain said.

The New Horizons craft is about the size and mass of a concert grand piano. Its mission took it about 3.26 billion miles to reach Pluto, with astounding accuracy.

"This is like doing a hole-in-one in golf when you tee off in New York and hit the cup in Los Angeles," he said.

Fountain expressed great pride in America's space program, which sent the first successful probe to Pluto and each planet in the solar system.

"All of you are part of this mission, and your support makes it all possible," he said.

Fountain said Alan Stern at Southwest Research in Colorado deserves a lot of credit for the New Horizons mission, as he has been the driving force behind sending a probe to Pluto since 1989.

Fountain is the project manager for New Horizons at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab. He grew up in Arlington and attended Hutchinson Community College before continuing his education at Kansas State University.

Saturday's event, sponsored by the Ad Astra Kansas Foundation, also included a presentation by Wichita State University physics student and recent NASA intern Caleb Gimar on Tombaugh, who discovered Pluto before attending college and made numerous other contributions to astronomy.