Friday, July 17, 2015

The Pluto Flyby

Our Solar System

Pluto’s Surface: This is a photo taken near its equator; one of the scientific surprises is that Pluto has ice mountains that reach a height of 3,500 metres (or >11,000 feet) and that these are both geologically young (<100 million years) and still forming. Pluto is more than 3 billion miles from earth. More photos will come in the days and weeks ahead.
Credit: NASA; JHUAPL-SwRI; July 14, 2015
Source: Smithsonian

An article, by Victoria Jaggard, in Smithsonian shows some close photos of Pluto, revealing some surprises to scientists on the ground on Earth; the photos come from the NASA probe, New Horizons, which the American space agency launched in January 2006.

In “Behold, the First Closeup Pictures From the Pluto Flyby Are Here” (July 15, 2015), Jaggard writes:
New Horizons zipped past Pluto on Tuesday morning, coming within about 7,000 miles of the planetary surface. The encounter lasted a few hours and involved good long looks not just at Pluto's sunlit face, its largest moon Charon and its four smaller moons, as well as a parting study of the nightside of Pluto partially illuminated by moonlight from Charon.
"New Horizons is now more than a million miles on the other side of Pluto," Stern said during a July 15 press briefing. "The spacecraft is in good health and it communicated with Earth again for a number of hours this morning." While the latest haul represents just the tip of a massive Plutonian iceberg, these early images from the mission are already yielding some startling implications.
When I was young, we memorized the order of the planets in our solar system, and Pluto was viewed as its ninth and last planet that orbited our sun. It is, on average, more than 5.8 billion kilometres ( or 3.6 billion miles) from our sun; the earth, the third planet from the sun, is much closer at 150 million kilometres, or 93 million miles. This is equivalent to one astronomical unit (AU), thus making Pluto 39 AUs away from the sun.

Besides its distance, its history is equally fascinating: it was discovered in 1930 by an amateur American astronomer (Clyde William Tombaugh) and subsequently named by a 11-year-old British schoolgirl (Venetia Burney) after the Roman god of the underworld. Pluto remained a planet for 75 years, until 2006, when the International Astronomical Union downgraded Pluto to a dwarf planet or a plutoid, essentially voting that its small mass and not being the dominant gravitational object in its orbit did not qualify it as a planet. [This did not put the matter to rest; the scientific debate of its status continues.]

For many, Pluto is likened to the “little engine that could,” the underdog. What is not in dispute, however, is what has now been achieved in the realm of astronomy and space flight. Seeing these photos is an accomplishment on the part of the team at NASA responsible for this mission; it is also another piece to the puzzle of knowledge of our cosmos. “Every mission expands our horizons and bring us one step further on the Journey to Mars,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, in an Universe Today article, regarding NASA‘s plans to send astronauts to the Red Planet during the 2030s.

As for the New Horizons probe, it is now moving at a speed of 49,600 kph (31,000 mph) into the Kuiper Belt, a vast body of small objects that orbit the sun. The probe is expected to send more images from there in 2019. These will, no doubt, be both engaging and captivating, as is anything previously unseen.

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For more, go to [Smithsonian]

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