NASA mission New Horizons snapped its first color image of Pluto, as well as Charon, its largest moon, on April 9. The photo, NASA’S first close-up ever of this world, was captured around 71 million miles away from its surface, and reveals wondrous insights about the planet itself, and its moon. Because Neptune, Mars, and Venus received close-ups decades ago, several studies about these bodies of mass have been performed, however, up until now, not much has been known about Pluto.
Pluto has had a unique history of its own in the world of science and space exploration. In its early days, the solar system was known to contain nine planets orbiting the sun, which scientists split up into two categories. Terrestrial planets, characterized by rocky terrain, included planets Mercury to Mars. Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune were made up of different compositions, largely gasses. Pluto, though lumped with the latter class of planets, has always had a different character altogether apart from the other massive worlds. Thus, the tiny and cold planet seemed to be in somewhat of a limbo all the way at its far corner of the solar system.
Over the years, more knowledge about Pluto was collected with scientists discovering that the planet had many similarities to the Kuiper Belt, an array of bodies of ice existing past Neptune. Because of its different character and its small size, it was removed from the category of planet, making the solar system eight worlds instead of nine, and placed it into its own category of ‘dwarf planet.’ Its new status somewhat marginalized its significance in effect, however, now NASA is discovering that there is more to the dwarf planet than its size reveals.
For example, for years, Mars was known as the red planet, however the color images produced by NASA’s mission, revealed for the first time that Pluto has a tint even redder than Mars. The planet shines more brightly than its moon, Charon, which is about half the size of Pluto, making it the largest moon in proportion to its respective planet. Adding to the uniqueness of this planet-moon relationship is the fact that, unlike other planets where the moon or moons orbit around their respective planetary bodies, Charon and Pluto seem to orbit around a central body of mass, making them appear more as sister-planets. Charon, in addition, has its own atmosphere. Based on these characteristics, it’s been suggested that Charon may have been the product of a collision between Pluto and other Kuiper Belt objects in turn creating its other four moons as well, Hydra, Kerberos, Nix, and Styx.
Though the first color images produced by the NASA mission have revealed so much new information, this is only the beginning as New Horizons is getting ready to make its first flight to the Pluto system on July 14. It has so far been traveling for over nine years, covering over 3 billion miles in its journey and making it the longest period of space travel in history. When the NASA mission arrives at its destination, bringing cameras, dust detectors, plasma detectors, and other scientific equipment, more information about Pluto’s topography will be disseminated, including what comprises its atmosphere, its terrain, and if there are even more worlds beyond what was thought to be the ninth planet.
By Bill Ades