Putting Pluto Into Focus


By Robert Marshall

Imagine being first to visit an ancient world known to exist for 85 years but never seen before! Dwarf planet Pluto, the largest object in the Kuiper belt, will soon be back in the science spotlight. Smaller than the Moon but more than 12,000 times farther away from Earth, Pluto is thought of by scientists as a tiny frozen time capsule. Made of the same materials as planets and comets, it may harbor secrets of our solar system’s early development.

Astronomers have patiently taken photographs with the Hubble Space Telescope throughout its years of service, revealing that Pluto has five moons (Charon, Styx, Nix, Kerberos and Hydra) but very little detail about Pluto’s surface. In fact, only computer images have been generated from low-resolution data, hinting at a landscape with color and contrast. Because of the vast ocean of space that separates our worlds, Pluto has yet to be studied like our closer neighbors via robotic spacecraft.

Launched in January 2006, New Horizons is closer to completing its nine year and nearly three-billion mile journey. Just this past December, NASA engineers woke the spacecraft up from hibernation, a method used to conserve moving hardware so it can continue to operate years after it starts orbiting Pluto. Stay tuned for mid-May when New Horizons’ images will surpass the quality of Hubble’s and when it eventually reaches closest approach on July 14th. Housing seven high-end analytical instruments, including cameras, spectrometers and a space-dust detector, New Horizons will orbit as a satellite just 6000 miles above the alien surface and send back data on a 4.5 light-hour one-way radio call. What hidings will Pluto reveal? Frozen lakes? Geyser eruptions? Maybe a ring?

Extension Questions

• How will the impact of New Horizons’ orbit of Pluto be similar to Mariner  4 orbiting Mars 50 years ago?

• Besides loss of power or hardware damage, what other concerns might NASA have regarding the health of the spacecraft? Hint: 5 moons!?