Wednesday, November 5, 2014

New Horizons: Mission to Pluto

Photo: Hubble Space Telescope
Faintly recalling the glory of space missions like the Voyagers, Galileo, and Cassini, New Horizons will expand our view of the Solar System. Although the focus of New Horizons is deservedly-demoted-to-ice-dwarf-status Pluto (and I still think there are other targets that would have been more interesting), I have to admit I'm on the edge of my seat now that we're less than a year away from the probe's closest approach on July 14, 2015.

New Horizons will give us a much better view of what this truly distant world looks like, which will be much appreciated given this photo is as good as it gets right now. In addition, we'll see Pluto's five moons: Charon, Nix, Hydra, Styx, and Kerberos. At minimum, Charon is sure to be interesting given its size. However, I'm expecting the other moons to be boring irregular rocks. But you never know. Space missions have a way of surprising us. Who thought tiny Enceladus would end up being so amazing?

After the Pluto fly-by, New Horizons may survey other large Kuiper Belt objects. I'm not sure what's on the docket, but it's exciting that we could end up with some wonderful surprises in terms of what this mission delivers. In terms of deliverables... It will seem very petty and vindictive, but I hope this mission proves that Eris - another ice-dwarf - is actually larger than Pluto. That would hopefully, and permanently, silence the tiresome chorus of people who for some reason have their panties in a knot over Pluto no longer being a planet. While I'm certainly not in complete love with the IAU's definition of a planet, planethood is a bit like Justice Potter Stewart's oft-paraphrased definition of porn: I can't define it, but I know it when I see it. Pluto isn't a planet, and we'll just have to wait for more data and thinking to clearly explain why.
Comparison of sizes: Earth, Pluto/Charon, and the Moon
But then again...who knows? Perhaps Pluto will be so completely active or fascinating or...something that it will seem necessary to elevate it beyond the freeze-dried version of an anonymous asteroid belt denizen. Space missions always seem to surprise us; that's why I'm on the edge of my seat. There's no telling what is waiting to be discovered seven months from now!

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