After a nine year mission we have finally reached our destination, the dwarf planet Pluto. We are more than 3 billion miles from Earth and moving more than 30,000 miles per hour, which means we only have a very brief window which to study the icy ball which has taken so long for us to reach. We are also finding that we must be alert, as even the smallest of debris could severely impair our mission and destroy our craft. However, the crew is in good spirits. My first officer has even grown a beard for the occasion. Personally, I think it looks a bit hipster, but he says that it’s “in” now with the kids.
These Are the Voyages
After almost ten years the NASA probe New Horizons reached Pluto early in the morning on Tuesday, July 14, 2015. At its closest point the probe came within 7,750 miles of the dwarf planet’s surface. That is the distance from New York to Mumbai. The New Horizon is the first ever craft to explore Pluto, and it makes Pluto the most distant object to ever be explored thoroughly by humans. This mission is the capstone to NASA’s exploration of our solar system. Humans have now studied all of the major nine bodies that orbit our son, as well as a few other bodies, such as the dwarf planets Ceres and Vesta in the Asteroid Belt.
Due to the immense technical requirements of studying and sending data back to Earth from 3 billion miles away, New Horizons can only take pictures or conduct scientific research, but not do both simultaneously. Even once the probe has collected the data it will take 16 months to send the full cache of data back to NASA, ten years worth of information.
The pictures that New Horizons has sent back so far are simply stunning, but the data that it has collected will be invaluable, and not just for furthering our understanding of Pluto, proto-planets, and the Kupier Belt, but for advancing NASA’s mission to put humans on Mars. Every new piece of information we learn brings us closer to the stars, both figuratively and literally. New Horizons has so far given us the most clear pictures of Pluto we have ever seen. Previous to these photos all we ever had were blurry, splotched images taken by Hubble.
A Class P World
Pluto, the former ninth planet of the solar system, is made up of rock, water ice, and frozen nitrogen. So far the New Horizons probe has discovered that the dwarf is bigger than expected, confirming that it is the largest object in the Kupier Belt, even if Eris is denser. However, don’t get your hopes up, it is still classified as a dwarf planet. If you don’t like it, you can always send more angry tweets to Neil deGrasse Tyson. It won’t change anything, but maybe it will make you feel better. What is amazing is that preliminary data may show that there is geological activity going on through some process on the dwarf planet, which is billions of miles from the Sun. That would have some amazing implications for exo-geology. We have also confirmed that Pluto has a thin atmosphere which is capable of bending light. Not that it matters as much on the farthest reaches of the solar system where our own sun looks like nothing more than another distant star in the sky. We have also found that the planet is leaking nitrogen into space, at a faster rate than scientists predicted. This also seems to imply that Pluto might have a geological way of replenishing the nitrogen from within its own crust.
Pluto has five moons that we know of, and two of those moons were only discovered after New Horizons launched in January 2006. There could be more, which we have yet to discover, but that is both exciting and scary. If New Horizons were to impact with an unknown Plutonian moon, we would have no idea what happened to it.
On a more sentimental note, New Horizons is also carrying the ashes of Clyde Tombaugh aboard. He was the man who discovered Pluto in 193o, and put to rest theories about a mysterious Planet X orbiting out beyond Neptune. His children were also in attendance on Tuesday for the eventful moment when New Horizons made its flyby of the dwarf planet.
This probe is just another in a recent string of accomplishments for NASA, from the Curiosity rover to the Messenger probe. The space organization will look to use this to help springboard its success to even greater heights, the ultimate goal being a manned mission to Mars.
The New Horizons is going too fast to make orbit around Pluto, but it will have a few days to collect data and incredible pictures. It will also give us our first glimpse of the dark side of Pluto, let’s hope there are no alien civilizations hiding on the other side biding their time until they can invade, not that we’re saying that is a possibility… but you never know.
Afterwards the New Horizons will be off into the Kupier Belt following in the footsteps of the Voyager probes. Some estimates say that this most current probe could last for another twenty years, taking readings of our farthest asteroid belt before maybe even making it into interstellar space. I guess we will just have to wait and see what new exciting findings the New Horizons will have in store as it boldly goes where no man has gone before, literally.