Drury professor revels in discoveries, connections to Pluto mission

You can call it a planet, a dwarf planet, or even a ball of ice. But to Dr. Greg Ojakangas, there’s no doubt about what to call Pluto: “Amazingly beautiful.”

Ojakangas, an associate professor of physics at Drury, was one of millions around the world fascinated by the prospect of seeing Pluto up close as NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft recently flew by the icy outpost at a distance of just 7,800 miles.

Color-corrected image of Pluto from New Horizons. (NASA)

Color-corrected image of Pluto from New Horizons. (NASA)

“This is a part of the universe no human has ever seen before,” he says. “It’s not often that you’re able to see, for first time, something no human eyes have ever seen.”

Ojakangas has a deep professional interest in New Horizons. His doctoral work examined the large moons of Jupiter, and the remarkable manner in which such worlds can have orbits that are synchronized with each other, providing power for volcanic eruptions and other fascinating dynamical phenomena.  In a similar manner, it was recently discovered that three of Pluto’s 5 moons are also synchronized.  “The staggering beauty of these phenomena is beyond words,”  Ojakangas says.  New Horizons is yielding incredible new information about Pluto’s five moons.

Greg Ojakangas

Greg Ojakangas

But Ojakangas also has a personal connection. The former finalist in NASA’s astronaut selection program knows many of the researchers working on the New Horizons team. He’s thrilled to see the work of colleagues pay off after the probe launched from Earth more than nine years ago. The results have been spectacular, he says.

“As is usually the case when we see a new planetary body, it’s surpassing our expectations in terms of discoveries,” he says.

Glaciers of nitrogen, mountains as high as those in the Sierra Nevada, a mysterious source of geologic heat and even a faint comet-like tail were some of the revelations beamed back to NASA from the spacecraft. For scientists like Ojakangas, the discoveries are not unlike going down the proverbial rabbit hole from “Alice in Wonderland.”

“The laws of physics are the same but the substances are all different, and it’s surprising everybody,” he says. “We love that kind of thing because we learn from it.”

And the lessons aren’t confined to the edge of the solar system.

“To understand our Earth better, we should do everything we can to understand other planets,” he says. “They’re ready-made laboratories for testing our understanding of how the materials of the universe behave.”

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Story by Mike Brothers, Drury director of media relations. A version of this story originally appeared in the Springfield News-Leader.