NASA made history again today with the New Horizons spacecraft doing its 30,000 mph flyby of Pluto after a 9-year, 3-billion-mile flight across our solar system.
I missed every live telecast today because of doctor appointments. But I have hopes of seeing replays and look forward to the promised “waterfall” of spectacular new images in the weeks to come.
I feel a special affinity for this particular mission because of its many Colorado connections:
- New Horizons’ principal investigator Alan Stern works at Southwest Research Institute in Boulder.
- Boulder’s Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. built “Ralph,” one of the core instruments that will help scientists map the surface of Pluto and its moons and assess their compositions.
- Stern, then a CU graduate student, and CU-Boulder planetary scientist Fran Bagenal with a group of about 10 other scientists, known as the “Pluto Underground,” fought tirelessly for some 15 years before Congress finally agreed in 2002 to fund New Horizons.
- Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Littleton, Colo., built the Atlas V launch rocket and its plutonium-powered thermoelectric generator.
- “The only one of the craft’s seven major scientific instruments to operate continuously since launch was built at CU-Boulder — by students. The Student Dust Counter (SDC) measures the miniscule building blocks of planets, providing new data on how plants form. It is the first student-built instrument ever to fly on a NASA interplanetary mission.” — Coloradan Magazine
The spacecraft was launched on Jan. 19, 2006, before the big debate started over Pluto’s status as a planet. In August of that same year, the International Astronomical Union reclassified Pluto as a dwarf planet. How disappointing it must have been to finally launch a mission to the most distant planet in the solar system, only to have the goal demoted to “dwarf planet” while the spacecraft was en route.
Pluto’s diameter is 1,473 miles, plus or minus 12 miles. That’s about 50 miles bigger than previous estimates. Small as planets go, 1/6th the size of Earth and smaller than our moon, but still larger than previously thought and now confirmed as the largest body in the Kuiper Belt, a huge region of thousands of icy bodies in orbit beyond Neptune.
And then there are the purely emotional kickers:
- Pluto has a heart, a broken heart, clearly visible in the photo. The lower right lobe is of a different, darker material.
- Some of the ashes of the man who discovered Pluto in 1930, Clyde Tombaugh, are aboard the spacecraft.
Personally I think Pluto should be returned to its former status of planet. As we learn more about the most distant parts of our solar system, it is perhaps the definition of “planet” that needs changing.