In just about eleven days, humanity will come as close as it ever has to Pluto, a planet discovered in 1930 and, to the chagrin of schoolchildren everywhere, relegated to dwarf planet status in 2006. Pluto will receive a visit from New Horizons, an unmanned NASA probe with the express purpose of studying Pluto and other objects in the Kuiper belt, a region beyond the orbit of Neptune many times more massive in diameter than the asteroid belt.
New Horizons: a journey nearly a decade in
New Horizons spent nine years hurtling toward Pluto at a leisurely 14 kilometers per second and is now slowing down to a sluggish 13.6 kilometers per second, give or take a few ten thousand kilometers per hour. In May 2015, the probe got close enough to Pluto that the photos it sent back to earth had a higher resolution than photos taken by Hubble, and as it nears this mysterious tiny former planet in a remote corner of the Solar System, anticipation is building.
Pluto has five known moons, the largest of which is Charon. In this composite of several images released recently by NASA, Pluto and its largest satellite Charon can be seen slowly coming into focus, just before the animation starts over again. It’s an appropriate teaser to what will be an historic moment for spacewatchers everywhere at the end of next week.
Some color images taken by New Horizons and released yesterday by NASA upped the ante by revealing dark spots on the dwarf planet’s surface. From the NASA press release:
Scientists have yet to see anything quite like the dark spots; their presence has piqued the interest of the New Horizons science team, due to the remarkable consistency in their spacing and size. While the origin of the spots is a mystery for now, the answer may be revealed as the spacecraft continues its approach to the mysterious dwarf planet. “It’s a real puzzle—we don’t know what the spots are, and we can’t wait to find out,” said New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute, Boulder. “Also puzzling is the longstanding and dramatic difference in the colors and appearance of Pluto compared to its darker and grayer moon Charon.”
But why is Pluto red? NASA has you covered there too, releasing a short video today that addresses this question:
Be sure to check back with us periodically as we closely monitor breaking news on Pluto and New Horizons.