New Horizon's Visit to Pluto Starts

It’s not precisely a top secret, but it is too little known: this month, a small, robot spaceprobe—made, launched and controlled by a team of over 2,500 Americans—will state the study of far-away Pluto and its five known moons. Lasting from January over July, this classic journey is very much the Everest of planetary exploration. it’s going to be an icon of 21st century human success that well deserves cheering.

The last time a spacecraft gotten near a new planet was during NASA’s study of Neptune by Voyager 2 back in 1989. When that occurred, the Berlin Wall was still standing, Richard Marx and Milli Vanilli were topping the charts, and the Internet was almost unidentified. (And by the way, I did just say Pluto is a planet. It turns out that many planetary researchers think so. Thanks to New Horizons, you can soon evaluate for yourself.)

 Pluto and three of its moons, pictured by the Hubble Space Telescope

New Horizons at present set records when it was launched in 2006 by becoming the fastest spacecraft to leave the Earth—getting to the orbit of the moon in just nine hours, about 10 times more rapidly than the Apollo spacecraft did. Now, after traveling for nine straight years at an average speed of 39,000 mph. (59,000 km/h)—equal to L.A. to New York in four minutes—it is at last reaching its historic rendezvous. No space probe has ever attempted farther—3 billion miles (4.8 billion km)—to approach its primary target.

At its closest approach, New Horizons will pass by Pluto at just 6,000 miles (9,700 km). It will send back pictures at resolutions so high that if it were in the air over New York City at the same height, it could count jetties on the Hudson River and ponds in Central Park. It will also study Pluto’s atmosphere, survey its moons, and more.

We know very little about Pluto excluding that its inside is mainly made of rock; it’s covered in ice and covered in an atmosphere made primarily of nitrogen, like Earth’s. Does it have mountain ranges? Is its superficial young or old? Are there polar caps? Might there be liquids on its surface or oceans in its inside? Could there be cloud levels in its atmosphere? Exploding geysers? Does it have more moons yet to be found? We don’t know the solutions to any of these questions—but we should know all of them soon.

And that matters. In 2003, the National Academy of Sciences ranked going to the Pluto system at the very top of NASA’s exploration urgencies. Why? Because in the 1990s, planetary astrophysicists found a vast structure in our solar system, a formerly unknown disk of comets and small planets out afar from Neptune, called the Kuiper Belt. Pluto was the first of many small planets found out there, and it is still both the brightest and the biggest one known.

The Kuiper Belt is the principal mapped structure in our planetary system, three times as big as all the area from the sun out to Neptune’s orbit. The comets and small planets that make it up are valued because they signify the astronomical equivalent of an archaeological dig, getting back to the era of planet creation, 4.6 billion years ago.

Nothing like the exploration that New Horizons is about to start has happened in a generation, and nothing like it is planned or even anticipated to happen again. It is likely the last time in our lifetimes that a new planet will be travelled. This is more than scientifically important—though it surely is that.



New Horizons

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