Blog 2: Pluto: From Dwarf Planet To Superstar!

Blog 2: Pluto: From Dwarf Planet To Superstar!

By Mélissa M Azombo

It’s Moon Monday again and get ready for more on moons – this time Phobos and Deimos – the beautifully intriguing moons of Mars. Phobos… No. Hold on a minute. Sorry. Scratch that. It turns out there’s an event that requires covering, way more than this.

It is Monday 13th July 2015 at 21h41 and the entire scientific community impatiently awaits the first ever close-up, detailed images of Pluto from New Horizon’s Flyby mission. We have no idea how Pluto really looks. Well, we have an idea, at this point in time, but we have no proper images of its surface. But tomorrow, on Monday 14th July 2015, we will. So, what exactly is the New Horizon’s Mission and what makes Pluto so special?

NASA’s New Horizons mission was launched on 19th January 2006. Part of its goal was to give us more information, in greater detail about Pluto, so the spacecraft was to take images of Pluto, as it passed it, on its journey.

As you might have guessed, Pluto has not always been known about. Positioned at 40 au (40 times the disance between the Earth and the Sun) away from the Sun, it was only discovered on 18th February 1930, whereas closer planets like Mars and Venus have been known about for as long as one can think of, due to Mars being bright enough to be seen in the sky and of course, Venus can be seen in the night sky, too.

Pluto was discovered by Clyde Tombaugh during a photographic search. It is believed to be part of a double-planet system, with its “satellite” Charon, as Charon (discovered in 1978) is approximately half the size of Pluto and the bodies rotate in a synchronised manner, so that the same sides of each body are always facing each other. Its atmosphere consists mainly of nitrogen, as Triton’s does. In fact, it is likely that Pluto is similar to Triton, apart from geologically.

It has been the centre of scientific controversy since it was demoted to Dwarf Planet status in 2006. The reason is that Pluto has not cleared its orbit, so can not have full planetary status, according to the 3 criteria which define a planet. The other two criteria are that it must orbit the Sun and must be big enough for the Sun to squash it into a sphere. Unfortunately, Pluto falls short by one criterion, as it is believed to belong to the Kuiper Belt, an area of planetesimals, such as comets and asteroids, beyond the orbit of Neptune, which is probably what makes it even more of an interesting place to visit.

Although images of the Pluto-Charon System already exist, Tuesday 14th July 2015 marks the day the world will discover Pluto’s features, with more detailed images of Pluto than currently exist produced by the New Horizons mission as it flies past. How exciting!

At 7h49m57s PDT, that’s 11h49m57s GMT, New Horizons will be at its closest approach to the Pluto-Charon system. Be sure to follow the #PlutoFlyby hashtag on Twitter, as well as the @NASANewHorizons Twitter account, while watching the live-stream on NASA TV from 7h30 EDT (11h30 GMT) or America Space from 6h00 EDT (10h00 GMT) for the latest updates on this once-in-a-lifetime event.

I’m afraid you’ll have to wait until the next Moon Monday to hear about Phobos and Deimos but surely, it’s worth it, as it’s Pluto’s turn to be in the limelight.


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