The very first images of Pluto will be unveiled this Wednesday, and Slooh will have them live on the air! Join host, Eric Edelman, Slooh Astronomer, Bob Berman, and special guests from the New Horizons team to discuss the mission, the images, and what they mean for our understanding of the dwarf planet.
New Horizons, which at its core resembles a grand piano in shape and size, was launched on January 19, 2006. It passed by the Jovian system in early 2007, picked up speed from a gravity boost, and now approaches Pluto at 31,000 mph. After travelling nearly 32 astronomical units, or 3 billion miles, the craft will pass just 6,200 miles from the surface of Pluto on July 14, 2015.
As part of its primary science mission, New Horizons will map the global geology and topography of Pluto and its largest moon Charon, determine their surface composition and temperature, measure Pluto’s atmosphere, study Pluto’s smaller moons Styx, Nix, Kerberos, and Hydra, and search for further moons and possible rings. From these measurements, scientists will try to determine how Pluto and its moons are related to the major planets of the solar system.
Once it passes Pluto, New Horizons will move deeper into the Kuiper Belt and examine one or two of the billions of icy bodies in this distant region of the solar system.
Pluto was discovered in 1930 by Clyde Tombaugh at Lowell Observatory and took its place as the solar system’s ninth planet. But in 2006, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) changed the definition of a major planet. Pluto satisfies two of the three IAU criteria: it revolves around the Sun, and it has has enough surface gravity to pull itself into a spherical shape. But unlike the eight major planets like Earth and Jupiter, it doesn’t have the gravitational chops to clear its orbital path of other bodies. So the IAU created a new class of solar system object, dwarf planets. Pluto, along with Eris, Haumea, Makemake, and Ceres are the five known dwarf planets in the solar system. Astronomers suspect there may be hundreds more awaiting discovery.
New Horizons has already grabbed images of Pluto with its Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI). By early May, the craft will be close enough to image Pluto in greater detail than the Hubble Space Telescope. From there, the view will just get better.