New Horizons – Flying across the dwarf planet Pluto

When we talk about the solar system, we talk of planets. And we talk of planets we no longer talk of Pluto. Then what is all this hype about?

Why is Pluto, the dwarf planet, in the news?

On 14th July 2015, NASA’s spacecraft New Horizons flew by Pluto. Although it’s no longer a planet, it’s an immensely loved rock sitting at the end of our solar system.

The New Horizons spacecraft took off nine years ago. To put that in perspective, that was around the time when Twitter and Facebook had just started gaining popularity. As of now, the probe has traveled more than 7 billion km to get a good close look at the dwarf planet.

“There’s not another mission like this in our time.  We’re the only 21st-century team that’s planning to explore a frontier planet, and no one’s planning to do it again” says Alan Stern who is the leading investigator of the New Horizons probe. This event was indeed history in the making. Until now, we could only study planets through images captured via our telescopes. But now we are exploring objects which were mere specks of light in those pictures.

Pluto seen from New horizons
Pluto as seen from Hubble(Left) and New Horizons(Right)

In just a few hours of the flyby, it has sent data that scientists will prod over for years to come. We have so far received stunning close-up images of the frontier planet. Because of those images, we now know that Pluto is larger than we estimated.



What have we learned about Pluto via New Horizons?

Pluto has methane clouds or haze layers which shower a tar-like brown goopy substance called tholin. Also, the surface looks like boiling milk and has giant mountains as high as three km spewing cold substances known as ‘cryovolcanoes’. This says a lot about the geology and evolution of objects far away from the coziness of the sun.

Pluto's terrain and land structure
Pluto’s terrain and land structure (Source)

We have always had a soft corner for Pluto and have been itching to know if it will be reinstated as a planet again? The answer is, probably yes. Pluto was demoted to a dwarf planet because it didn’t have enough gravity to clear its path of rocks while orbiting in Kuiper’s Belt. Kuiper’s Belt is a desolate cold abode of ice and rock which has never been observed keenly enough since it was nearly impossible due to the distance.

Now, many scientists are of the opinion that other planets wouldn’t have been able to clear them either if they were in Pluto’s place. Stern seems hopeful about the reinstating of Pluto as a planet after analyzing the new discoveries made by the probe. Keep your fingers crossed Team Pluto!

The Kuiper belt
The Kuiper belt

Now that New Horizons has completed its primary objective of closely studying Pluto it will keep flying into Kuiper’s Belt for a more in-depth exploration of the frontier of our solar system.

Pluto flyby New horizons timeline
Pluto Flyby -Timeline of events

2015 is aptly named “The year of Pluto”. Click here to know where exactly the New Horizons probe is currently.

Watch Alan Stern narrate and explain the graphic imagery of Pluto’s icy surface.

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