When Pluto was demoted from planet to “dwarf planet” by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) in 2006, my fellow babies of the ’80s (and well, most everyone) went absolutely batshit. From protests and picket signs, to t-shirts and space swag, people around the world stepped up for the celestial body – as if it were one of their own. But who would have thought that nine years later, the little demotee would be the focus of one of the most historic space missions of our time.
At approximately 7:49am ET, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft became the first ever to fly by the dwarf planet, completing its over 3-billion mile, decade-long journey to discover an alien world near the edge of our solar system. The journey represents our species’ unquenchable thirst for exploration and discovery. And People. Are. Stoked.
“It’s exciting to see the world excited about the solar system [again],” says Lights In the Dark space blogger Jason P. Major. “It’s that last world. It’s out there, at the edge (not exactly, but in common thinking it is.) Pluto is small. It got picked on by the IAU. And now it’s back with a vengeance. It’s the comeback KBO (Kuiper Belt Object).”
We won’t hear from the spacecraft until about 9PM EST, as it can’t actually look at Pluto and turn to communicate with Earth simultaneously, but as a teaser, NASA released the above image early this morning. Some 476,000 miles from the surface, Pluto nearly fills LORI’s frame – the last, and most detailed image that will be sent to Earth before the flyby.
“I don’t know what I expected to see,” says Major. “But it’s less ‘hazy’ than I imagined. That’s probably from years of looking at artists’ illustrations.”
New Horizons might be powered by a PlayStation (yes, really), but its onboard LORRI camera has the capability to snap photos 5,000 times larger than those shot by the Hubble Telescope – an amazing leap for science given that before NH, most artists gave the planet a purple hue, and our best photographs looked like this:
Each pixel in the new image represents 4 kilometers (about 2.5 miles), and it’s only a sliver of the resolution to come. “Pluto was discovered just 85 years ago by a farmer’s son from Kansas, inspired by a visionary from Boston, using a telescope in Flagstaff, Arizona,” says John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “Today, science takes a great leap observing the Pluto system up close and flying into a new frontier that will help us better understand the origins of the solar system.”
Just what we’ll find remains a mystery, but that’s part of the excitement of the whole mission. We don’t know what we’re looking for, we don’t know what we’ll learn. “The view in the new image is dominated by the large, bright feature informally named the ‘heart,’ which measures approximately 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) across. Much of the heart’s interior appears remarkably featureless—possibly a sign of ongoing geologic processes,” explains NASA.
“From the surface texture, I would be very surprised if there wasn’t an underground ocean,” adds Major. “It’s not a ‘dead’ world like some of Saturn’s moons – there’s something going on inside! We hope the closeups will tell us what.”
Because New Horizons is the fastest spacecraft ever launched – hurtling through the Pluto system at more than 30,000 mile per hour – a collision with a particle as small as a grain of rice could incapacitate the spacecraft. Once it reestablishes contact tonight, it will take 16 months to send its cache of data, 10 years’ worth, back to Earth. When asked about any atmospheric components, like clouds, Mission Director Alan Stern noted they hadn’t seen any in the images yet, nor any plumes. But it’s still early and there’s a lot more data to come.
“One thing’s for sure, the next few months are going to be full of discovery – like getting birthday gifts every week,” says Major.
ALL IMAGES:Bill Ingalls/NASA, NASA/APL/SwRI, HUBBLE