NASA’s Trip to Pluto

A NASA spacecraft named New Horizons was launched in 2006 from Florida to make its journey to explore Pluto and its five moons. This will be the first spacecraft to travel to Pluto as it will approach this planet within 7,750 miles. As it passes by, observations will be documented giving a more distinct view of this celestial body.

NASA’s New Horizons has already made history being noted as the fastest spacecraft traveling for the longest period of time; and it has traveled the greatest distance into space. From Mercury to Pluto, NASA has launched spacecraft for a visual observation to all nine known planets of our solar system. The first flyby was initiated to Venus in 1962. The last exploration launch into outer space was in 1989 when Neptune was discovered by Voyager 2.

This particular spacecraft, New Horizons, which became NASA’s project in 2001, is the only one that was designed to make the journey. Furthermore, it was noted that there are no other known spacecraft traveling toward this planet at this time. It is expected that the spacecraft will approach Pluto’s system on Jul. 14, 2015, which means  it has taken 11 years to reach this distant planet. Similar to this event, on Jul. 14, 1965, fifty years ago, the first historic flyby of Mars occurred.

For more than 75 years, Pluto has been considered the most distant planet. It is approximately 4.6 billion miles from earth. Although several images in the sky were noticed by  astronomers for a period of time, Pluto was finally identified by name in 1930. The planet’s name was selected by the Lowell Observatory from over one thousand proposals. This chosen name, submitted by an 11- year old girl from Oxford, England, is associated with Pluto, a Roman god from the underworld.

There is limited information known about Pluto. As the ninth planet, it is believed that the atmosphere is wrapped in nitrogen like Earth, the interior is comprised of mainly rock,  and it is covered with ice. Pluto is about two-thirds the size of the earth’s moon, with a diameter estimated at 1,430 miles. It became known as the dwarf planet in 2006 due to its distance from the sun. One of the moons of Pluto, Charon, is about the size of the state of Texas.

As New Horizons travels closer to Pluto, the mission has been organized to perform specific tasks within blocks of time. In January, the mission, Approach Phase 1, was designed to collect data of Pluto’s space environment including surrounding satellites. Recently, the data of the space plasma and dust were collected to give more definition of the orbital environment.

The more recent mission for NASA’s New Horizons, Approach Phase 2, began last week and will last until mid June. The purpose for this data collection mission is to learn more about the composition of Pluto and its moons. Pictures will be taken in black and white, color, ultraviolet, and infrared spectrum to provide greater depth to visual images.

Two other important experiments before the final approach will be conducted. NASA will explore Pluto’s temperature and radar reflectivity. Simulations will provide information about the science data processing system and hazard avoidance.

By Marie A. Wakefield

L.A. Times
Photo by Bill Lile – Flickr License

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