Written by: Shannon Schmoll
Primary Source: Hooked On Space – Astronomy and Crochet
When I was in 4th grade, we studied the solar system. As part of that unit we had to pick a planet and write a report. I chose Pluto.
At the time, Pluto didn’t get a whole lot of love. It was still a planet, but it was the farthest and most distant planet. We didn’t have any good images of Pluto and there weren’t plans (that I was aware of as a nine-year old) to head out there and study it in more depth. I’ve always had a thing for the runt of the litter and wanted to give Pluto some attention it deserved.
Since Pluto’s classification was changed to dwarf planet, though, it’s popularity has soared. Many people have decried its “demotion.” Personally, I don’t mind. First, it went from being the smallest planet to the largest and the king of the dwarf planets. That’s a promotion in my book. Also, people are caring more about the little guy now. It doesn’t matter what we classify Pluto as or what we call it, it’s still out there, it’s still important, and it’s still a fascinating solar system body.
This is proven with the excitement that has grown in recent months around NASA’s New Horizons mission. This was a spacecraft, roughly the size of a grand piano, that was launched in January 2006. It has traveled as fast as 30,000 miles per hour to be one of the fastest spacecraft to go visit an planetary body. It still took New Horizons 9 and half years and 3 billion miles worth of travel to reach Pluto, but it made it and completed that part of its journey yesterday morning at 7:50 am EST.
To give a sense of how that compares to previous missions, it took about that long for Voyager to reach Uranus. Pluto is twice as far from the sun as Uranus.
New Horizons is breaking into a new frontier of studying dwarf planets and Kuiper Belt objects that live in the most distant reaches of the solar system. For the first time, we have gotten images that are clear and show more than slight color variation, which is the best we’ve gotten from telescopes like Hubble. We can now see clear geological features and know what our friend truly looks like. The same is true for its moon Charon, and we will also get better images of its other moons as well.
New Horizons is equipped with several instruments and it’s much more than a camera that is really far away. It has instruments that have mapped the temperature on Pluto, its atmosphere’s structure and composition, and how that atmosphere interacts with the sun.
Last night, around 9pm, New Horizons pinged home to let the New Horizons team know it collected all the data it was supposed to and it’s ready to send it back. It is going to take 16 months to download everything and the analysis and in depth studies of Pluto will be going on for a while. Yesterday, history was made with our visit to Pluto and that is just the beginning. I watched as that happened on NASA TV and I cried. It was amazing and wonderful to see my little friend from 4th grade finally get the attention he deserved and be studied properly like all the other planets.
Go Pluto! Today is a good day.