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Thursday, July 16, 2015 www.guardian.co.tt Guardian
We ve made it to Pluto by
Nasa s calculations, the last stop
on a planetary tour of the solar
system a half-century in the mak-
The moment of closest approach
for the New Horizons spacecraft
came at 7.49 am EDT on Tuesday,
culminating a journey from planet
Earth that spanned an incredible
three billion miles and nine-and-
"This is truly a hallmark in
human history," said John
Grunsfeld, Nasa s science mission
Based on everything Nasa
knows, New Horizons was straight
on course for the historic
encounter, sweeping within 7,800
miles of Pluto at 31,000 mph.
That s because Nasa wants New
Horizons taking pictures of Pluto,
its jumbo moon Charon and its
four little moons during this critical
time, not communicating with
In a cosmic coincidence, the
encounter occurred on the 50th
anniversary of Mariner 4 s flyby
of Mars that yielded the first close-
up pictures of the red planet.
The United States is now the
only nation to visit every single
planet in the solar system. Pluto
was No 9 in the lineup when New
Horizons departed Cape Canaveral,
Florida, on January 19, 2006, but
was demoted seven months later
to dwarf status.
Scientists in charge of the
US$720 million mission, as well
as Nasa officials, hope the new
observations will restore Pluto s
Inside "countdown central,"
hundreds jammed together to share
in the remaining final minutes,
including the two children of the
American astronomer who dis-
covered Pluto in 1930, Clyde
At a news conference afterward,
officials unveiled a picture of Pluto
taken just Monday. The icy,
impacted world drew oohs and
aahs. Even better pictures will start
"raining" down to the ground
beginning Wednesday, principal
scientist Alan Stern said, "a data
It takes four-and-a-half hours
for signals to travel one-way
between New Horizons and flight
controllers, the speed of light. The
last time controllers heard from
the spacecraft was Monday night,
according to plan.
New Horizons already has
beamed back the best-ever images
of Pluto and big moon Charon.
The pictures are "mind-boggling
to put it mildly," Nasa administrator
Charles Bolden said.
The newest pictures, from the
actual flyby, won t be transmitted
until well afterward so the seven
science instruments can take full
advantage of the encounter. In fact,
it will take more than a year to get
back all the data.
On the eve of the flyby, Nasa
announced that Pluto is actually
bigger than anyone imagined,
thanks to measurements made by
the spacecraft. It s about 50 miles
bigger than estimated, for a grand
total of 1,473 miles in diameter.
Pluto is now confirmed to be
the largest object in the so-called
Kuiper Belt, considered the third
zone of the solar system after the
inner rocky planets and outer
gaseous ones. This unknown ter-
ritory is a shooting gallery of
comets and other small bodies.
If a mission extension is granted,
New Horizons will seek out anoth-
er Kuiper Belt object before heading
out of the solar system---for good.
Pluto close-up: Spacecraft makes fly-by of icy, mystery world
Members of the New Horizons science team react to seeing the
spacecraft's last and sharpest image of Pluto before closest approach
later in the day on Tuesday at the Johns Hopkins University Applied
Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland. Nasa's New Horizons
spacecraft was on track to zoom within 7,800 miles of Pluto on
Tuesday. NASA VIA AP
This July 11 image
provided by Nasa
shows Pluto from
the New Horizons
spacecraft. AP PHOTO
Pluto's tiny, icy world is getting
major attention for its first visit by a
spacecraft, Nasa's New Horizons.
Tuesday's fly-by---with the closest
approach being the approximate
distance between Seattle and
Sydney, or New York and Mumbai---
is expected to open up new ground
on the last unexplored planetary
territory of our solar system.
Here's a rundown on Pluto, a
20th-century discovery about to
become the 21st-century darling of
Pluto is the only planet (OK, now
former planet) in our solar system
discovered by an American.
Astronomer Clyde Tombaugh
spotted the dot in 1930. The name
Pluto came from a British schoolgirl,
Venetia Burney, then 11, based on
the mythological god of the
Tombaugh died at age 90 in 1997,
nine years before New Horizons
took flight. A bit of his ashes is on
Both of Tombaugh's two children,
now in their 70s, were at the New
Horizons mission operations centre
for Tuesday's celebration.
Big moon Charon was discovered
in 1978, followed by little moons
Nix and Hydra in 2005, Kerberos in
2011 and Styx in 2012. The Hubble
Space Telescope revealed all four
baby moons. Astronomers stuck to
underworld undertones when it
came to the names.
New Horizons will hunt for more
moons, but at this point, they
would have to be pretty elusive.
The Pluto empire, complete with six
bodies, at least for now, is like its
own mini solar system.
Forget the sunglasses
Pluto is so far from the sun---
between 2.8 billion and 4.6 billion
miles---that twilight reigns. At high
noon on Pluto, it looks as though it
would be dawn or dusk on Earth.
It takes 248 years for Pluto to
orbit the sun. Thus, it's only made it
about one-third of the way around
the sun since its discovery in 1930.
Every so often, Neptune's orbit
exceeds Pluto's, putting Neptune
slightly farther out.
First a planet, then it's not
Pluto is the only planet to get
kicked out of the solar system club.
Just seven months after New
Horizons rocketed away from Cape
Canaveral, Florida, in 2006, the
International Astronomical Union
declassified Pluto as the ninth
planet for technical reasons.
Instead, it became a dwarf planet.
The decision left the solar
system with eight full-fledged
planets, with Mercury replacing
Pluto as the smallest.
New Horizons scientists, as well
as Nasa's leaders, are hoping the
new pictures will restore Pluto's
The twilight zone
Pluto is the biggest object in the
icy Kuiper Belt, also known as the
third zone after the inner rocky
planets and outer gaseous giants.
The Kuiper Belt is full of comets
and other small frosty objects. It's
named after the late Dutch-
American astronomer Gerard
Kuiper, who proposed a bevy of
small bodies beyond Neptune back
in the 1950s. The New Horizons
team hopes to go after a smaller
Kuiper Belt object following the
Pluto fly-by, provided a mission
extension is approved.
FACTS ABOUT PLUTO
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