Flying By Pluto

Jul 24, 2015 By Vatsal, Writer Intern
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New Horizons, a probe launched by NASA, is completing its nine-year journey to Pluto. Shaped like a baby grand piano, it will take pictures of the physical terrain of Pluto’s surface, helping scientists determine what the main component of Pluto is.

History Of Pluto

For the last ten years of his life, Percival Lowell was asked to search for evidence of a planet that had not been discovered, named Planet X. Lowell looked for it, but he never found it.

It wasn’t until 1930 when Clyde Tombaugh finally located it in the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona which was founded by Lowell. It was named Pluto, and it was considered the ninth planet in our galaxy.

However, in 2006, the IAU (International Astronomical Union) classified Pluto as a dwarf planet. There are three characteristics that planets need to have in order to be a planet:

  • It must orbit the Sun.
  • It must have enough gravity to be a spherical shape.
  • It must be larger than anything else in its orbit.

Although Pluto meets the first two criteria, it fails the third. After further inspection, scientists found celestial objects in the same orbit as Pluto that seem to be larger. They reclassified the newly discovered objects, including Pluto and its moons, into a grouping called the Kuiper Belt.

Another dwarf planet called Eris had suffered the same problem as Pluto, and it has also been made a part of the Kuiper Belt. After Pluto was classified as a dwarf planet, not much attention was paid to it, until now.

New Details About Pluto

On July 14, 2015, New Horizons did a flyby of Pluto. It took pictures of the terrain of Pluto, as well as pictures of Pluto’s largest moon, Charon.

To astronomers’ surprise, Pluto was very rugged and mountainous. Previously, scientists had believed Pluto to be an icy planet made of frozen nitrogen, methane, and carbon monoxide. But these ices are much too soft to form mountains. So now, scientists have come to the conclusion that Pluto has water ice to form mountains.

Pluto’s orbit around the sun is “elliptical,” like an oval. The probe was lucky that it caught Pluto when it was closest to the sun. Otherwise, it would have taken many more years because it takes approximately 248 years for Pluto to completely orbit the Sun.

Pluto is not the only dwarf planet that has been of interest for astronomers. Many others have been studied for their terrain, composition, and even for signs of life. New Horizons will not stop at Pluto, but it will keep going farther into unexplored space. By 2026, NASA expects an end to New Horizons. But if it is kept going, by 2038, it would be about 500 million miles (800 million kilometers) from the Earth, which is approximately 100 times the distance between the Earth and the Sun.

New Horizons is the most successful NASA probe ever launched, and hopefully, it will give us more information about the beyond.