What did we know about Pluto before the New Horizons mission got close enough to send back images? As a kid I learned that Pluto was a small, icy planet with one moon, Charon. As I got older, I discovered that Pluto’s orbit was much different the other planetary orbits in the solar system – Pluto is farther away than all the other planets of the solar system for only part of its orbit, and it orbits in a different plane than the rest of the planets. Using the Hubble Space Telescope, scientists on the New Horizons team discovered that Pluto had four smaller moons beyond Charon’s orbit: Nix and Hydra, discovered in 2005; Kerberos, discovered in 2011; and Styx, discovered in 2012.
For the last couple weeks, and especially this last week, images, news, and even comedy about Pluto filled my social media feeds as New Horizons flew by the distant planetary body. New Horizons is the first of NASA’s New Frontiers missions and launched in January 2006. New Frontiers missions are medium-sized spacecraft expected to cost around $1 billion dollars compared to the $2.5 – 3 billion dollars that the large (a.k.a., flagship) missions are expected to cost.
What has been learned so far during the New Horizons mission? Pluto’s surface is younger than expected. Pluto’s atmosphere extends farther than predicted. New Horizons discovered a region of atmospheric ions behind Pluto. Pluto is larger than previously thought.
Some of my favorite posts about the New Horizons discoveries:
Video zooming in on Pluto: https://www.facebook.com/NASA/videos/10153399567316772/
NY Times feature that includes images where you can see “Mordor” labelled on Charon and “Cthulhu” (a.k.a. “The Whale”) next to the heart-shaped feature on Pluto: http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/07/15/science/space/new-horizons-pluto-flyby-photos.html
Portrait of Pluto and Charon: http://www.nasa.gov/image-feature/portrait-of-pluto-and-charon
Artists’ renderings of Pluto before New Horizons: https://www.facebook.com/planetarysociety/photos/a.382509954844.161005.51189044844/10153390751279845/?type=1&permPage=1
And then fans of space and science created some awesome creative content:
My Charon-a: a parody of The Knack’s My Sharona that is all about Pluto and its moons: blogs.denverpost.com/nerd/2015/07/15/my-charon-a-in-which-the-knack-gets-pluto-fied/4660/
XKCD’s take on the labelling of features on Pluto: xkcd.com/1551/
“That’s no dwarf planet…” https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10153510725272265
I grew up reciting Pluto as the last in the list of planets in our solar system. Although Pluto was downgraded to a dwarf planet in August 2006, I’ll always think of it as a planet. I hope this boon of information about Pluto, which I’m sure will continue for years as planetary scientists sort out the implications of all the data that’s been collected, will inspire more children to study science, math, and engineering, and encourage more people to support funding for planetary exploration missions.