Even with advancing technology we have never been able to take a photo of pluto that showed it as anything more than a small white dot. The dwarf planet is around 3 billion miles away and less than two thirds the size of earth’s moon. But now, a NASA spaceship will reach the most important part of its mission and will hopefully give us a never before seen look at Pluto.
The ship named New Horizons has been traveling since 2009 and is now on its way towards Pluto at a speed of 23,000 miles per hour. New Horizons is a probe which weighs around half a ton and it will hurtle past Pluto on 14th July taking photos and collecting data from the instruments onboard. NASA hadn’t previously been interested in Pluto, opting instead to send missions to closer and larger planets. It was recently decided that Pluto isn’t even a proper planet at all, but the icy dwarf has interested people since its discovery.
Alan Stern, the principal investigator of the New Horizons mission, was a former NASA associate administrator and is now working for the Southwest Research Institute. He has said “This is a moment. People should watch it. They should sit their freakin’ kids down and say, think about this technology. Think about the people who worked on this for 25 years to bring this knowledge. It’s a long way to go to the outer edge, the very edge of the solar system”. Stern’s enthusiasm for the project has been tireless and has undoubtedly inspired interest in the mission.
When communicating with New Horizons, technicians have to aim at where they think the craft will be in the future, as even when traveling at the speed of light messages still take around 4.5 hours to reach the spacecraft. During its nine year mission the craft hasn’t been without problems- it has occasionally rebooted its main computer and corrective software has had to be uploaded through space.
A big obstacle for New Horizons has been the tens of thousands of icy objects that float beyond Neptune’s orbit in an area called the Kuiper Belt. The outer regions of our solar system have remained unexplored but scientists hope that this mission may help to shed more light on the origins of the solar system. New Horizons’ camera has already been picking up patterns on Pluto’s surface that have baffled scientists.
A Pluto mission was first proposed by Stern in 1988 but NASA spent years considering various proposals before it settled with New Horizons in 2001. In 2006, the spacecraft took off using an Atlas V rocket and reached record-breaking velocity. At its closest, New Horizons will be 7,800 miles from Pluto and won’t be able to transmit data while using onboard instruments. This means that there will be suspense from 7.49am on 14th July, when the spacecraft should begin to record data, until 9pm when scientists should receive communication to find out that New Horizons survived the mission.
Pluto was first discovered by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930 while working at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona. At the beginning of the century, Percival Lowell had believed that there must be a ninth undiscovered planet which he called Planet X, but it was not discovered in his lifetime.
Around 10 years ago, astronomers started to questions Pluto’s status as a planet after it had been discovered that the far reaches of the solar system are inhabited with large icy objects. The International Astronomical Union finally reclassified and downgraded Pluto to a status of dwarf planet. While some agree with the reclassification, others think it’s unimportant as Pluto is still an interesting structure that is worth visiting to find out more about the solar system and possibly its beginning. There are others, such as Stern, who still believe that Pluto has all the attributes of a planet and that the astronomers “don’t know what they’re talking about”.
The full data collected by the instruments of New Horizons won’t be fully received until late 2016, when it will be stored by the New Horizons Mission Operations Center before being analysed.