It was not so long ago that one of the best images we had of distant Pluto was this photograph taken by the amazing Hubble telescope. It provided very little detail of our far away friend. How far away you ask? At the speed of light, it would take around 5.5 hours to reach it! For reference, the sun is 8.3 light ‘minutes’ away from the Earth.
On January 19, 2006, the New Horizons spacecraft was launched from Cape Canaveral. After visiting asteroid 132524 APL, New Horizons proceeded to Jupiter and made it’s closest approach on February 28, 2007. The Jupiter flyby provided a gravity assist that increased New Horizons ’ speed.
After it’s encounter with Jupiter, New Horizons spent most of it’s time in hibernation mode to preserve on-board systems. On December 6, 2014, New Horizons was brought back online for the Pluto encounter and on January 15, 2015, the New Horizons spacecraft began its final approach phase to Pluto.
Discovered in 1930 by Clyde Tombaugh, Pluto was originally considered the ninth planet from the Sun. After 1992, its status as a planet fell into question following the discovery of several objects of similar size in the Kuiper belt. In 2005, Eris, which is 27% more massive than Pluto, was discovered, which led the International Astronomical Union (IAU) to define the term “planet” formally for the first time the following year. This definition excluded Pluto and reclassified it as a member of the new “dwarf planet” category (and specifically as a plutoid). ~ Wikipedia
New Horizons has now given us incredible views of Pluto with amazing surface detail. It is yet another amazing scientific / engineering accomplishment by our species. Imagine… when NASA sends instructions to New Horizons, it takes 5.5 hours to reach it and then another 5.5 hours for NASA to receive a reply!
These images are amazing and the mountains of data New Horizons is capturing will keep scientists busy for years enabling them to learn much more about our place in the universe.
For more great images, be sure to check out the New Horizons website!
Pluto Hubble Image – Public Domain
Artist’s concept of NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft – Public Domain
New Horizons Pluto image – Public Domain
Blue skies on Pluto – Public Domain