WOODSTOCK – It didn’t take long for space camper Trevor Benton to realize something was amiss with his instructions to build Pluto as part of a scale model of the solar system.
“They just found that out with the picture,” Trevor, of McHenry, explained to camp Commander Tasha MacKenzie.
The weeklong astronaut training camp that Trevor, Harrison and their fellow explorers were enjoying coincided with the main objective of a probe launched nine years ago – explore Pluto and its array of small moons.
Sarah Nader- email@example.com Harrison Hunt (left), 9, and Trevor Benton, 10, of McHenry draw a scale model of Pluto during space camp at the Challenger Learning Center in Woodstock Tuesday, July 14, 2015. NASA’s New Horizons probe flew by Pluto on Tuesday, capturing history’s first up-close look at the dwarf planet. Campers did all kinds of Pluto-related activities, from building a scale solar system model to figuring out Pluto time and other activities to celebrate.
Many of the campers weren’t even born – and Pluto was a full-fledged planet – when New Horizons was launched in 2006. But later that year, the International Astronomical Union demoted Pluto to a “dwarf planet,” one of the many objects that make up the Kuiper Belt of icy chunks on the solar system’s outer fringes.
The change was not lost on campers.
“There are only eight planets now. When our parents were kids, there were nine,” Brayden Troiani of Elgin said as he and John Malina, of Crystal Lake, colored Neptune a deep blue.
An array of space probes have visited the other “classical” planets of Mercury through Neptune, but New Horizons is giving us our first up-close look at Pluto, discovered in 1930 by astronomer and Illinois native Clyde Tombaugh.
To get an idea of the scale, campers unrolled toilet paper to measure out planetary distances. At not even a centimeter in diameter, Pluto is about 200 sheets of toilet paper away from the sun. In more practical measurements, the world is smaller than the continental U.S., and messages from New Horizons take more than 4 1/2 hours to reach Earth.
MacKenzie said she hoped the campers would appreciate that they were there the week of a major astronomical discovery, which many scientists have hailed as the end of the preliminary reconnaissance of our solar system.
“I hope that’s the biggest thing for them, to have a memory, look back and say, ‘Hey, I was in space camp that day,’” MacKenzie said.
Lead Flight Director Rebecca Dolmon, who was a camper shortly after the Challenger Center’s opening in 2001, said staff have been excited watching the photos streaming in from the probe. She said she hopes the campers learn to appreciate the significant scientific milestone that happened while they attended a space camp.
“I hope it’s exciting for the kids, and hopefully they better understand how big a deal it is to get pictures of a new world with all this clarity,” Dolmon said.
For Harrison, the reason NASA sent the probe was simple: Learn what we don’t know.
“NASA’s been to all the planets, and Pluto was the last one. They wanted to know more about it,” he said.
The Challenger Center, one of 40 worldwide, uses space simulations and role-playing to spark interest in science, mathematics and engineering. The centers are named to honor the crew of the space shuttle Challenger, which exploded in 1986 and killed seven astronauts, including the first teacher in space.