If you’re near a TV set or computer tonight, you might want to check out Pluto. The NASA spacecraft New Horizons will be zooming by and sending back photographs and data that will give us our first good look at the “dwarf planet” at the edge of our solar system.
The New Horizons effort is pretty cool. Nine years ago the spacecraft, which is about the size of a piano, was launched, and since then it has traveled 2.9 billion miles on its journey. Today New Horizons is closing in on Pluto and its largest moon, Charon, traveling at a rate of almost 31,000 miles per hour, snapping pictures and using its instruments to gather other data. Already it has taken the first clear picture of Pluto and Charon, with a focus vastly superior to the indistinct blobs produced by the Hubble space telescope. Eventually it will get to within 7,600 miles of Pluto’s surface.
With this Pluto flyby, human spacecraft have now visited every planet in our solar system. We should celebrate that, and also celebrate this: the New Horizons project is one of the most technologically challenging efforts NASA has ever undertaken. The spacecraft won’t be able to orbit Pluto, it will approach it edge on and then fly by. That means that New Horizons, which is traveling on an automated control path, has to hit a “keyhole” in space that’s about 60 miles by 90 miles — a remarkably precise target for a probe that is billions of miles away. If it misses, we’ll just get pictures of empty space.
Starting at about 8 p.m. tonight, engineering data will tell us whether New Horizon threaded the needle. You can access the NASA live feed here.
Some days, science and technology can be pretty awesome. This is one of those days.
Those of us over a certain age learned that Pluto was the ninth planet in the solar system, and the one farthest from the Sun. In 2006, however, Pluto was “de-planetized,” when the know-it-alls at the International Astronomical Union concluded that Pluto should be relegated to “dwarf planet” status. Pluto itself could not be reached for comment.
Since it was dissed nine years ago, tiny Pluto has stolidly borne its politically incorrect “dwarf planet” label. Still, it’s an intriguing object. It’s tiny (smaller than our Moon), its orbit is different from that of any other planet, it’s unimaginably far away (on average, 3.6 billion miles from the Sun, 40 times farther away than Earth) and its deeply mysterious because we’ve never gotten a good look at it. Even though Pluto was discovered in 1930, we still don’t have any decent picture of the object.
That’s about to change. Recently, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft entered its Pluto exploration zone. It was launched in 2006 and has traveled more than 4 billion miles to get near Pluto. For most of that time, the spacecraft’s active systems have been “sleeping.” Now, New Horizons has been awakened, and last Sunday it began to take its first pictures of Pluto. It’s closest pass will come in July.
As New Horizons transmits its photos back to Earth, we’ll learn far more about Pluto than we’ve ever known before. I’m rooting for little Pluto, which has basically been ignored in favor of studies of Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars. I’m hoping that Pluto turns out to be the most fascinating object in the solar system. Who knows? Maybe Pluto is small and weird because it’s not a planet at all, but instead an alien spacecraft, or a marker like The Object in 2001. Probably not . . . but a Plutophile can dream.