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UT Postdoc Leads New Phase of NASA’s Pluto, Spitzer Telescope Observations

NASA scientists will get a deeper look at Pluto thanks to a new round of observations being led by a University of Tennessee, Knoxville, postdoctoral student.

Noemi Pinilla-AlonsoNoemi Pinilla-Alonso, a postdoctoral researcher in earth and planetary sciences, is the lead investigator of the Spitzer Space Telescope observations. The seven-day study, which began Thursday, is gathering infrared data at 18 different longitudes. The information will help scientists better understand the possible changes to the ice on the dwarf planet’s surface over the past 10 years.

The Spitzer observations follow NASA’s historic flyby of Pluto earlier this month using its New Horizons spacecraft, which gave humankind its first-ever up-close look of Pluto and its five moons.

“This is a great project, and for planetary scientists this is like a field trip,” Pinilla-Alonso said. “The technology available does not allow us to visit one of these icy worlds, but we can put our eyes on them, and this is what New Horizons has done. Being part of this journey is being part of one of the milestones in the exploration of the solar system.”

Since its discovery 85 years ago, Pluto has been changing, and it will continue to change as it moves farther from the sun. New Horizons can give the most detailed observation to date of the Pluto system. Simultaneous observations with ground-based telescopes and space telescopes like Spitzer together with the instrumentation on the spacecraft will enable scientists to compare the view of Pluto through New Horizons’ eyes and the telescopes so they will have a more accurate interpretation of the data, Pinilla-Alonso said.

The Spitzer Space Telescope is currently in orbit and trails behind the Earth as it moves around the sun. This helps keep the telescope cold and increases its operational life. It allows scientists to look into cosmic regions hidden from optical telescopes, including the centers of galaxies and newly forming planetary systems. Spitzer’s infrared eyes also allow astronomers to see cooler objects in space like failed stars, extrasolar planets and giant molecular clouds that may give clues to life on other planets.

For the past 10 years, Pinilla-Alonso and her co-investigator Joshua Emery, UT assistant professor of earth and planetary sciences, have been studying the surface composition of icy dwarf planets and Kuiper Belt objects—icy bodies that orbit the sun beyond Neptune. Pluto is one of the largest Kuiper Belt objects.

Pinilla-Alonso came to UT in 2012 to work with Emery, who has expertise in the analysis of Spitzer observations.

“One of our first plans was to combine that expertise and build a project to widen the knowledge of Pluto,” she said. “A career in science is all about learning, and I have learned a lot in these three years from Dr. Emery and his group.”

Pinilla-Alonso’s path to UT from her hometown of Asturias, Spain—in a small lush region hemmed in by oceans to the north and mountains to the south—had stops along the way, including the Canary Islands for university studies and to work on different research projects in the observatory in La Palma, one of the best international observatories in the northern hemisphere; a postdoctoral position at NASA Ames Center in California; and visits to other institutes such as the Observatorio do Valongo, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and the Instituto de Astrofisica de Andalucia, in Spain.

Of her passion for planetary sciences, she said, “I really enjoy the process, the search for answers and the testing of a hypothesis. Sometimes you find that your hypothesis was right, sometimes you find that it is not—and that drives you to a different view of the problem and, most of the time, to more questions that do not have an immediate answer. I love to embrace this challenge.”

The Spitzer Space Telescope is the final mission in NASA’s Great Observatories Program—a family of four space-based observatories, each examining the universe in a different light. The other missions in the program include the visible-light Hubble Space Telescope, the Compton Gamma-Ray Observatory and the Chandra X-Ray Observatory.