On January 19, 2006, on a bright afternoon, NASA launched New Horizons, a sophisticated space probe to make flyby studies of the mysterious planet Pluto and its moon. Now en route to the Kuiper belt in which Pluto lives, New Horizons began its close fly-by observation in July, 2015.
How mysterious is Pluto? No one really knew for sure there even was a space body like Pluto. However, its effects on other celestial bodies in its solar system range showed what might be the effect of another planet beyond Neptune. Astronomer Percival Lowell had proposed the existence of “Planet X” and the name using the algebraic symbol for an “unknown” accentuated the mystery.
Add to these the fact that no one found the planet until 1930. Clyde Tombaugh, a young man in his 20s and just starting to study astronomy without any college preparation found the planetary suspect just where Lowell had predicted.
Another puzzle piece is the clearly unusual orbit the planet takes around the sun that is at a completely different angle from all other planets that tend to orbit the sun on the same flat plane. Pluto’s orbit takes 248 Earth years to complete. Since Tombaugh’s discovery, Pluto has even been “demoted” from regular planet status and reclassified as a dwarf planet. Pluto’s structure is believed to include an outer core of frozen nitrogen around water ice around a rock core. It is now understood to be only one of other large bodies in the Kuiper belt, a distant region of the solar system past the planets that is composed primarily of tens of thousands of frozen objects including a few dwarf planets, of which Pluto seems to be the largest.
So… a lot of recent discovery and speculation that New Horizons is investigating and revealing to us. If the results from other space probes are any indication, New Horizons is going to pack a few more surprises.
If you haven’t kept up, here is a set of NASA notes about New Horizons’ images of Pluto.
And with help from NASA, you can soar over Pluto’s Majestic Mountains & Icy Plains:
B Bondar / Real World Content Advantage