After the discovery of new potential planets made scientist uncomfortable back in 2012 and they opted for demoting Pluto from planet status to dwarf planet (or planetoid), controversy surrounded the subject, with both scientists and space fans arguing over the decision. Sarcastic memes flooded the internet and our solar system was to never be the same again.
Now, as NASA’s New Horizons is finally reaching Pluto the debate is sure to resurface.
The spacecraft is the first to ever reach Pluto and seems to have a sense a humor, or at least a sense of nostalgia – it captured the first-ever color photo of Pluto and Charon (Pluto’s largest moon) on what would have been Clyde Tombaugh’s 109th birth anniversary. Tombaugh is known to histoty as the person who discovered Pluto in 1930.
The photo was taken somewhere in the first half of April 2015, from 70 million miles out (113 million kilometers) and though blurry, scientists say it shows the bright and dark features on dwarf planet’s surface, including what may be an ice cap at one of its poles.
John Grunsfeld, ssociate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, said that “As we approach the Pluto system we are starting to see intriguing features such as a bright region near Pluto’s visible pole, starting the great scientific adventure to understand this enigmatic celestial object. As we get closer, the excitement is building in our quest to unravel the mysteries of Pluto using data from New Horizons”.
NASA’s spacecraft is expected to be closest to the planet furthest from the Sun in mid July 2015, providing researches with better quality images and more detailed images as it makes its way to there. But researches are already excited about potential new discoveries.
Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator at Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, said that “After traveling more than nine years through space, it’s stunning to see Pluto, literally a dot of light as seen from Earth, becoming a real place right before our eyes. These incredible images are the first in which we can begin to see detail on Pluto, and they are already showing us that Pluto has a complex surface”.
Hal Weaver, the mission’s project scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland, echoes the feeling, speculating that “We can only imagine what surprises will be revealed when New Horizons passes approximately 7,800 miles (12,500 kilometers) above Pluto’s surface this summer”.
Randy Gladstone, New Horizons mission co-investigator gave a statement saying that “We’re a long way out there with a tiny spacecraft. It takes about a year to get all that data back so eventually it will all come back and we’ll have plenty to play with for the next 10 years”.
He went ion to say that “There’s this whole new area out there called the outer solar system where the Kuiper Belt is and Pluto is a member of the Kuiper Belt, but there’s thousands of them out there, and there’s many, many objects the size of Pluto out there that are very interesting looking and they’re a key component of the solar system. The way they were distributed helped form the entire solar system”.
Image Source: independent.co.uk