About the Holiday
Instituted by Astronomers Without Borders, a group who sees in our shared sky an opportunity to create “a global community that appreciates, studies, and shares the wonders of the universe, to broaden perspectives, transcend borders, and improve lives,” The group’s goals are twofold: to inspire and empower a worldwide community of astronomy enthusiasts and educators through astronomy-related programs and to cultivate a diverse, international community dedicated to sharing the Earth’s resources equitably. To try to accomplish these goals, Global Astronomy Month brings people together with arts activities, parties, and special events. To find resources, such as April sky maps in English and Spanish, and more information on how you can participate, visit the Astronomers Without Borders website.
The Little Spacecraft That Could: New Horizons’ Amazing Journey to Pluto and Arrokoth
Written by Joyce Lapin | Illustrated by Simona Ceccarelli
As the little spacecraft blasted away from the launch pad on January 19, 2006, she thought that her name—New Horizons—“was a brave-sounding name. And you had to be brave to fly to the edge of the solar system.” New Horizons was on her way to Pluto—the first spacecraft to do so. Zooming through space, her engines dropped away in stages. Free of these engines the little spacecraft, “no bigger than a small piano… streaked through space at more than 10 miles per second.”
While she soared, New Horizons wondered what she would find when she finally reached Pluto. She knew that everyone was counting on her to provide answers about this mysterious planet. People had a lot of questions, and New Horizons had a lot of time to ponder them. In fact, it would take her “nearly 10 years to reach Pluto.” Things were going well for New Horizons. She was on track and jogging along at 36,000 miles an hour… but then on August 24, 2006, astronomers decided Pluto wasn’t big enough to be considered a planet and demoted it to dwarf planet status.
Planetary scientists didn’t and don’t agree with this change, and New Horizons? She just wanted to complete her mission, and she had to concentrate on what came next—meeting up with Jupiter at just the right time to take advantage of this giant planet’s gravitational pull to speed up her trajectory toward Pluto. Carefully, New Horizons got into position. She sped faster and faster and was flung into space, heading toward her destination at “nearly a million miles per day.”
Now and for the next eight years, New Horizons would fly on autopilot while she took a well-deserved nap that would conserve fuel as well as her computers and instruments. Periodic wake-ups by the scientists on Earth made sure everything was going well. Finally, on December 6, 2014 it was time for New Horizons to wake up and go to work. She wouldn’t be landing on Pluto but doing a “flyby” 7,800 miles away from the surface of Pluto. At this distance the photographs she took would be clear and her other instruments for listening, smelling, feeling, and measuring other aspects of Pluto and its atmosphere would work too.
New Horizons couldn’t wait to get started and began snapping pictures “from half a million miles out.” What people saw when she sent back her photos “sent the internet on fire.” It appeared that Pluto was holding a white heart—a valentine for Earth. “Everybody loved the dwarf planet with a heart!” This heart is actually a glacier made of nitrogen, which on Pluto’s cold surface forms ice instead of gas like on Earth
On July 14, 2015, New Horizons at last reached her optimal distance, and what wonders she uncovered! Towering ice mountains, valleys deeper than the Grand Canyon, “‘ice blades’ the height of New York City skyscrapers,” and “‘ice volcanoes’…that spew out icy slush instead of lava.” This was only the beginning of what scientists discovered. Measurements also showed that Pluto was larger than was thought—bumping it up “from second-largest dwarf planet to the largest.”
New Horizons also took pictures and measurements of Pluto’s moons and, after snapping one last picture: Pluto “‘crowned’ with the hazy blue glow of its atmosphere” while lit from behind by the Sun, New Horizons was off for Arrokoth, an object in the Kuiper Belt that hadn’t even been discovered when she blasted off from Earth all those years ago. A billion miles later, New Horizons reached Arrokoth on January 1, 2019. New Horizons continues to send information about this fascinating body, and because she’s still so “robust…her team wants [her] to visit an even more distant Kuiper Belt world in the 2020s. No one doubts she can do it.
In addition to the story about New Horizons’ journey, each page contains illustrated insets with detailed facts and information about the New Horizons spacecraft, Pluto, our solar system, how the planets were named, and more.
Back matter includes a timeline of New Horizons’ journey, an extensive glossary, a list of books for further reading and research, and a list of internet resources where readers can see videos and learn more about New Horizons and her mission.
Joyce Lapin’s thrilling true tale of New Horizons’ mission to Pluto and beyond lends pep and personality to this little spacecraft that the world watched blast off with the heart and anticipation of a parent sending their child off on their first day of school. Her engaging storytelling helps kids understand and appreciate the magnitude of New Horizons’ flight and all it has accomplished. Lapin’s clear descriptions of the various stages of the mission, scientists’ expectations, and the tricky maneuvering necessary to put New Horizons at the right place at the right time are delivered smoothly and concisely.
Scientific vocabulary and definitions are woven seamlessly throughout, enhancing the reader’s understanding without their losing any of the suspense. Kids will identify with the childlike nature of New Horizons’ confidence in herself and commiserate with her dismay when Pluto is demoted. Readers will cheer on this little spacecraft as her mission is expanded and will be excited to learn more about what New Horizons has already discovered and what she will find in the future.
Simona Ceccarelli’s illustrations are nothing short of phenomenal. Photographic in detail, Ceccarelli’s vibrant images take kids from the launchpad with the fiery rocket boosters produce clouds of smoke as the spacecraft climbs into the sky, into outer space, where they see how the engines disengaged to set New Horizons free to navigate past Mars, pick up speed from Jupiter (shown in its colorful, striped glory) and rocket past Saturn (the rocky debris of its icy rings clearly visible) to become just a dot in the black sky.
Ceccarelli also takes readers into the control room where graphs, screens, coordinates, and more line the walls and computers stand side-by-side on the desks and carefully observed by the mission’s directors. Images of the heart on Pluto include internet snapshots that will remind some readers of how the world reacted to the first images sent back by New Horizons.
The final images of Pluto, showing a landscape of ice blades, deep canyons, mountains, and swirling patterns of color and then backlit by the Sun, are breathtaking. The spacecraft itself is lightly anthropomorphized with expressive eyes and mouth and cable-thin arms. Drawn from all sides, the images of New Horizons give kids a good a look at this amazing spacecraft.
A sensational achievement in presenting the scientific and human accomplishments involved in the New Horizons mission as well as an exhilarating overview of our solar system, The Little Spacecraft That Could would be a stimulating addition to science units for elementary and high school students to spark a love for astronomy, engineering, research, and other related subjects. The book will be a favorite and is a must for home, classroom, and public library collections.
Ages 7 and up
Sterling Children’s Books, 2021 | ISBN 978-1454937555
Discover more about Joyce Lapin and her books, visit her website.
To learn more about Simona Ceccarelli, her books, and her art, visit her website
Global Astronomy Month Activity
Out-of-This-World Tic-Tac-Toe Game
You can launch your own Tic-Tac-Toe Game with this set you make yourself! With just a couple of egg cartons, some crayons, and a printable game board, you’ll be off to the moon for some fun! Opposing players can be designated by rockets and capsules. Each player will need 5 playing pieces.
- Printable Moon Tic-Tac-Toe Game Board
- 2 cardboard egg cartons
- Heavy stock paper or regular printer paper
- Black or gray fine-tip marker
To Make the Rockets
- Cut the tall center cones from the egg carton
- Trim the bottoms of each form so they stand steadily, leaving the arched corners intact
- Pencil in a circular window on one side near the top of the cone
- Color the rocket body any colors you like, going around the window and stopping where the arched corners begin
- With the marker color the arched corners of the form to make legs
- On the cardboard between the legs, color flames for blast off
To Make the Capsule
- Cut the egg cups from an egg carton
- Color the sides silver, leaving the curved section uncolored. (If your egg cup has no pre-pressed curve on the sides of the cup, draw one on each side.)
- Color the curved section yellow to make windows
- With the marker, dot “rivets” across the capsule
Print the Moon Game Board and play!
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