HOULTON – At the Houlton Information Center on Friday, a crowd of Aroostook County pupils listened intently as Northern Maine Museum of Science educators supplied them with facts about the planet Pluto.
“It was discovered by the only American ever to discover a planet,” said museum director Dr. Kevin McCartney, who sported a sparkling silver wizard’s outfit for the occasion.
“And his name was?” Jeanie McGowan, the museum’s outreach coordinator, quizzed the children. The coordinator supplied the answer, “Clyde Tombaugh,” when the crowd of third- and fourth-graders was stymied.
“Why did he name it Pluto?” one pupil inquired.
It was just the kind of response Northern Maine Museum of Science staff were hoping to generate in their observance of Tombaugh’s discovery. The museum held a special event Friday to mark the 75th anniversary of the enigmatic planet’s discovery and inform elementary school children about NASA’s first planned mission – dubbed New Horizons – to Pluto. The $650 million mission will begin next January and is scheduled to last nine years. Scientists and astronomers hope the mission will answer many questions about the ice-covered planet.
In 1998, Northern Maine Museum of Science undertook the Maine Solar System Model project involving high school students throughout Aroostook County. As part of the project, students built models of the nine planets. The giant spheres, visible from the road, were placed at points along U.S. Route 1. The model of Pluto stands in Houlton, while Uranus is in Bridgewater and Saturn is in Westfield.
NASA invited the Houlton museum to participate in a grant to educate schoolchildren about the New Horizons mission. Friday’s celebration drew third- and fourth-graders from Houlton, Hodgdon and Easton and was intended to kick off the long-term program.
“We received a grant through NASA because of our solar system model project,” McGowan said Friday. “We are going to serve as the rural education component [of the grant] and engage the children in the mission now and in the future.”
Each pupil attending Friday’s festivities received an informational packet about the New Horizons mission. They also had a chance to see the Pluto model in the information center. Before leaving, the children sang “Happy Birthday” to the planet, and toasted the milestone with cake and milk.
“The goal is to engage them at this point, and keep them educated about the planet and the developments in the mission throughout the nine years,” McGowan said. “When this is over, they will have a rich knowledge of Pluto, the mission and space exploration in general.
“I think this program is going to be great,” the outreach coordinator said. “It is exciting to know that our solar system model was what attracted the attention of NASA to our area. I think that the children are going to learn a lot from this whole venture.”