Chad Melton has always loved astronomy, but he never really mastered mathematics in high school. Since math is essential to astronomy, majoring in it in his first round of college wasn’t really an option. He ended up following his other love – music – and spent time on the road playing drums with various musicians.
“My math grades were horrible when I first came out of high school,” Melton says. “One night on the road, I got bored in hotel room and found a website for an online academy and just started doing math.”
Melton worked up to basic calculus through online tutorials, videos and books, and eventually decided to go back to school.
Now 37, he is a senior geology major in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at the University of Tennessee, where he had a unique opportunity to observe the July 14, 2015, New Horizons flyby of Pluto.
“Mathematics is something I’ve really learned to love,” says Melton, who is from nearby Cleveland. “I don’t think a single teacher I had in high school would believe I would ever have said that, but I don’t think I would have either since I pretty much just played drums growing up.”
While learning math, Melton also listened to books about science and astronomy. “It was fun, but I didn’t really feel like I could have a point of view unless I studied it.’’
When he went back to school, Melton met Joshua Emery, assistant professor in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, and the student approached the professor about doing research on the Kuiper Belt (in which Pluto is the largest object).
Emery works with a postdoctoral student, Noemi Pinilla-Alonso, who observes Pluto with telescopes to support the New Horizons flyby. NASA invited both Emery and Pinilla-Alonso to observe the flyby, but they were unable to go, so Melton received the invitation.
“Of course I jumped on the opportunity to go,” Melton exclaims. “It was really great.”
Professor Emery says Melton had been working with him for about a year when the invitation came through. With Melton’s research focus on the Kuiper Belt (of which Pluto is the largest member), he was generally familiar with Pluto and other Kuiper Belt objects.
Emery and Pinilla-Alonso had both worked with the New Horizons team in the past but neither could make the trip.
“The undergraduate students who work in my group are always working on projects that are at the forefront of knowledge in whatever field they are working on,” says Emery.
“That is one of the benefits of a research university like UT – the faculty are working on cutting-edge research, and students get the opportunity to really experience what it is like to work in their chosen field.
“In his research, Chad is really developing new scientific knowledge, and, as a result, he was prepared to productively attend the New Horizons event.
“He was the person in our group with the next greatest exposure to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt, so it also made sense to have him attend the New Horizons flyby.”
At the New Horizons operations center in the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, based in Columbia, Maryland, Melton joined thousands of other scientists, researchers, and space enthusiasts to see some of the first up-close images of the dwarf planet Pluto and its five moons.
“It was a lot different than what I expected,” Melton points out. “I have never been involved with anything like that kind of event before.”
The event had a festive feel to it, Melton recalls. Mostly taking place in an auditorium and another main room, the event featured a variety of talks about the mission background, models of various aspects of the mission and the onsite filming of the event by NASA television.
“Of course, there was also the fun, touristy part of the event where there was even a model of New Horizons you could wear as a hat,” he says, saying he took the opportunity to have some fun and modeled the hat for his girlfriend, who snapped some photos of him as keepsakes.
When the first images of Pluto came back, everyone was thrilled.
“The research I got involved in was looking at objects in the Kuiper Belt, which includes Pluto,” Melton notes.
Using the Spitzer Space Telescope, an infrared space observatory, Melton and his fellow researchers made observations of the icy bodies within the Kuiper Belt and draw conclusions about their composition.
However, Pluto is roughly 40 astronomical units from Earth, which is about 3,720 million miles away, so gathering clear images that show distinct features of Pluto and the icy bodies that make up the Kuiper Belt can sometimes be a challenge.
“The images from New Horizons help us to ground truth [from] the observations we’ve made,” Melton explains. “To me, it’s a really great way to see that our science actually works.”
The Kuiper Belt is a region of the solar system beyond Neptune that extends from about 30 to 55 astronomical units and is named after Gerard Kuiper who proposed in 1951 there was possibly of a belt of icy bodies beyond Neptune.
These icy bodies in the Kuiper Belt are considered to be remnants from the formation of the solar system about 4.6 billion years ago, which makes studying them all that more interesting for Melton.
“I think it’s neat because the bodies in the Kuiper Belt can provide us with a lot of information,” he adds. “We don’t think many of these objects have been altered since the formation of the solar system, so we can see back to formation conditions.”
What Melton and other researchers do know is the icy bodies within the Kuiper Belt, also known as KBOs (Kuiper Belt objects), are a mixture of complex organics, water, ice, and silicate rock that have not melted.
“I think investigating our solar system is something we really need to do,” he says. “I think it’s inevitable that we will expand and visit other solar systems, so it’s good for us to know the classification and composition of icy bodies or planets we may visit one day.”
In the 2000s, the National Academy of Sciences ranked exploration of the Kuiper Belt as its top priority, specifically, understanding more about Pluto and one of its moons, Charon. The New Horizons mission is what will help scientists like Melton understand the icy bodies at the edge of our solar system.
Launched January 19, 2006, New Horizons swung past Jupiter for a gravity boost in February 2007. It finally reached its destination this past summer and culminated with the closest approach to Pluto ever on July 14, 2015. The spacecraft was 7,750 miles above the surface, which is roughly the same distance from New York to Mumbai, India.
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden has said: “The exploration of Pluto and its moons by New Horizons represents the capstone event to 50 years of planetary exploration by NASA and the United States.
“Once again we have achieved a historic first. The United States is the first nation to reach Pluto, and with this mission has completed the initial survey of our solar system, a remarkable accomplishment that no other nation can match.”
Because New Horizons had one shot at its target, scientists designed it to gather as much data as possible during the flyby and not just snap a few photos.
Additional data collected during the flyby includes measurements of the solar wind-charged particles in and around Pluto’s atmosphere; detection of the masses of space-dust particles; and information about the atmospheric structure, thermal properties at the surface of Pluto, as well as the planet’s mass.
“When I look at the pictures, especially the up-close ones, I just wonder how what we see forms,” Melton says.
“If you sit and try to imagine how some of these formed, the craters or the mountain and the moat, I think you have to come up with some really interesting processes that would make this kind of feature because we don’t see this here on Earth.”
Melton recently accepted an offer to keep working with Emery at UT for graduate school. In his graduate research, Melton will focus more on the morphological and geophysical aspects of either Pluto or Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons, both of which he finds to be fascinating objects.
“Europa is really interesting,” he says. “There’s an ocean there, which provides a lot of cool implications, all speculation, but if it’s tidal heated and gets energy there to melt that much water, you’ve got a recipe for, well, life.”
Melton is neither ready nor willing to commit to the possibility of life within our solar system outside what we experience on Earth, but he does draw his conclusions based on extremophiles.
Extremophiles are organisms that live in extreme environments, such as under high pressure and temperature. Bacteria on rocks near hydrothermal vents are an example. Usually classified as microbial life forms, these organisms survive and thrive in physical or geochemical conditions that are detrimental to most life on Earth.
If organisms like this exist here on Earth, then is it possible they could exist on other planets that formed during the initial expansion of our universe that scientists theorize as the Big Bang.
However, Melton wants to stay true to his geology background during his graduate studies and learn more about the geophysics of Europa or icy bodies in the Kuiper Belt, such as the formation of the icy bodies or the tectonics of Europa.
“I appreciate the biology, but it’s not my forte at all.’’
New Horizons is not headed home. As part of an extended mission, it’s headed farther into the Kuiper Belt to explore other icy bodies at least a billion miles beyond Neptune’s orbit.
The New Horizons mission is a mission of many firsts.
Not only is it the first mission to Pluto, but it’s the first mission to a double planet. It’s February 2007 gravity assist from Jupiter allowed the spacecraft to collect data about the planet and its moons as it flew by at 47,0000 miles per hour approximately 1.4 million miles away, which was the closest approach it had to the largest planet in our solar system.
New Horizons is also the first mission to study Kuiper Belt Objects and the first spacecraft since the 1970s Voyager missions sent to explore an unexplored planet.
Melton is excited about the opportunity to learn more about icy bodies in the Kuiper Belt as New Horizons continues on to other KBOs and sends data back to Earth. He’s also excited about the potential for human space exploration.
“I’m not a Mars expert, but I think we know enough to go there and should go for it,” he says. “There’s really great science about Mars right now. I think it’s possible that in our lifetime we’ll see a human land on Mars.”
Melton is not living in a sci-fi fantasy world where he thinks mass colonization of Mars will occur, but he does believe in science and thinks an individual landing or a small science outpost would be possible.
“The problem, however, is that humans are squishy,” says Melton. “It’s much safer to send a rover or a robot or something out because they don’t feel the effects of radiation. It’s one of the biggest issues of space travel.”
For now, Melton will stick with what he knows and continue to dig deeper into the geology and morphology of the dwarf planet Pluto and other icy bodies in the Kuiper Belt in order to advance the scientific understanding of the conditions under which our solar system formed over 4.5 billion years ago.