NASA is about to make history as the New Horizons space probe makes it way through dwarf planet Pluto’s system. The probe will offer the first up-close photos of the icy dwarf planet and will be the last of the “original nine” planets in the Milky Way to be photographed at close range. NASA has already visited all the other original named planets, including Pluto’s icy neighbors Neptune and Uranus.
What makes this mission particularly interesting is that the probe will offer the first surface images of the planet. Pluto is somewhat of an enigma in our solar system. We have photos of the icy planet, but the only photos available are somewhat grainy and hard to decipher. Scientists believe that Pluto has five moons in its system, but many theorize that there could be more. Pluto may or may not have icy rings surrounding it and could even have a surface similar to Earth’s Antarctica. However, one of the more puzzling things about Pluto is the strange shapes seen on Pluto’s surface from enhanced Hubble Telescope images.
BBC News notes that in the enhanced Hubble images there are a series of strange shapes that can be seen across Pluto’s surface. Currently, scientists have no idea what causes the strange shapes to appear in the images. However, as the Los Angeles Times points out, the resolution of the Hubble images is so poor “that if you looked at a comparable image of Earth, you wouldn’t be able to distinguish the continents from the seas.” This has made it nearly impossible for scientists to even hypothesize what the strange shapes could be.
Planetary scientist Alan Stern, who is the principal investigator for the NASA New Horizons mission, notes that the knowledge scientists have of Pluto is “quite meager.”
“Our knowledge of Pluto is quite meager. It is very much like our knowledge of Mars was before our first mission there 50 years ago.”
However, Stern notes that the New Horizons mission is going to change everything we know (and don’t know) about the tiny icy dwarf planet. The New Horizons space probe will pass through Pluto’s system in July of this year and will offer not only an up-close look at the dwarf planet, but a very detailed one. Stern notes that the instruments on New Horizons are capable of taking spectacularly detailed images.
“The instruments on New Horizons will take images so detailed that if they were pictures of Los Angeles, they would show individual runways at Los Angeles International Airport.”
It has taken New Horizons nine years and over three billion miles of space travel to arrive at this historic moment. With New Horizons on approach to Pluto, scientists will begin to receive the first photos of the icy planet as they adjust the trajectory of the space probe to ensure the craft makes it within the desired distance of Pluto’s surface.
New Horizons isn’t the only NASA project aimed at learning more about the mysterious dwarf planets in our solar system. The Dawn Spacecraft is currently approaching orbit with the asteroid belt’s largest celestial body, the dwarf planet Ceres.
What do you hope to see in the first up-close images of Pluto taken by New Horizons?