Much about planets still unknown, astronomer says

USU » Nearly 300 tour "solar system" at Friday event
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Nearly 300 people launched into the solar system on the campus of Utah State University on Friday night.

The explorers traveled through a simulated solar system -- a walk-through scale model -- and stopped at six planets surrounding the sun. Both Pluto and a relative newcomer, Ceres, were included in the Science Unwrapped presentation on the Logan campus.

Featured speaker Mark V. Sykes, astronomer and director of Arizona's Planetary Science Institute, said in his evening lecture that there is a great debate about the definition of and number of planets.

"When you say there's just eight, you close the door. There's no more reason to explore the reaches of the solar system," he said.

That's just fine with Kyler Kunz, 6, and Kadie Kunz, 8, who attended with their father, Thad Kunz, of Hyde Park. When asked how many planets there are, young Kadie said, "16," -- and who is to say she's wrong?

Scientists certainly can't agree, Sykes stressed in his lecture: "The Dawn Mission: The Origin of Life and the Great Planet Debate."

Sykes' distinguished career has evolved since telescopes were almost the exclusive exploration tool. He said two NASA spacecraft -- Dawn, which launched September 2007 and will arrive at Ceres in 2015, and New Horizons, launched in January 2006 to reach Pluto in July 2015 -- will teach humans much more about the Earth.

"We're getting such detailed information back from our spacecrafts," he said.

Sykes greeted Friday's travelers at the end of their orbit at "Pluto," where they enjoyed an out-of-this world treat: Aggie Ice Cream. Sykes, a recipient of NASA's Planetary Science Division Distinguished Service Award and many other professional accolades, believes his field of study should go beyond the classroom.

"Science is too often thought of as a bunch of facts that are memorized," he said.

A thunderstorm warning didn't keep Clark and Sharon Salisbury of North Logan from the adventure. With a lifelong interest in extraterrestrial life, the Salisburys said they are optimistic exploration will catch up with their expectations that many other planets and life forms exist.

"The big question is life," Sharon said.

Sykes agreed, saying the most exciting aspect of space exploration is the possibility of discovering life.