Today, the New Horizons space probe is close enough to Pluto, to begin taking the first photographs of the mysterious dwarf planet.
In 2006, an Atlas V rocket lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, USA, carrying a 500kg space probe called New Horizons. Its mission would be to fly to Pluto, the former ninth planet in the solar system (currently classified as a dwarf planet), and make the first closeup study of it, and its moons.
The space probe has been traveling for almost ten years, and today, it’s finally close enough to begin taking pictures of Pluto. “New Horizons is set to begin imaging Pluto today, but with the spacecraft still approximately 130 million miles from Pluto, the pictures will be distant,” said Mike Buckley, a spokesman for the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.
At this point, the images taken by the probe will be mainly used to determine the trajectory of New Horizons and help the scientists in charge of it make the preparations for it’s closst approach in July. The pictures it takes now will most likely feature Pluto and its largest moon, Charon, as two bright dots. The images are expected to arrive home later this week and will be released to the public shortly after.
New Horizons has several instruments on board, including a space dust collector, a telescopic camera, a color camera and infrared and ultraviolet spectrometers. Despite its distance from the sun, NASA engineers are confident that these instruments will be able to take high resolution pictures and make topographic maps.
These images are the best pictures we have of Pluto at the moment, but that will change soon
This will be the first time in decades that we get to witness a planet being revealed to us in this manner. Pluto is one arguably the last “major” body in the solar system that we know very little about. So why is it that we don’t have better pictures of it, when the Hubble Space Telescope can take dazzling pictures of galaxies and nebulae much further away? The answer is simply that those objects are much, much larger. The Andromeda galaxy for example, despite being 2.5 million light years away, is also 220,000 light years across. Meanwhile, Pluto is tiny, with a diameter smaller than the moon, and with a mass 500 times less than Earth’s. to spot such an object, even from within our solar system, is much harder.
Once New Horizons finishes its six month investigation of Pluto and its moons, the probe will travel into the Kupier belt, a debris field left from the formation of the solar system, and study some objects there.