Most people think of space as some distant, irrelevant place – a setting for sci-fi movies and astronauts, but one that has nothing to with our actual lives. Seen in this light, visiting a new dwarf planet isn’t particularly meaningful and exciting. But this isn’t the right way to see space at all. Space is where we live.
Earth is a planet in space, just as Jupiter, Mars and Pluto are. Wait, Is Pluto a planet? Pluto has captured people’s imagination for nearly a century. This frozen world at the solar system’s outer orbit that was discovered in 1930 remains mysterious to this day because Pluto is ridiculously small and so far away; telescopes on and near Earth haven’t been able to take its distance.
But that is changing, and rapidly. NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft is already getting good looks of Pluto, and will return history’s first up close photos of the dwarf planet.
On February 18, 1930, Clyde. W. Tombaugh discovered the tiny, distant planet by the use of photographic plates combined with a blink microscope. His finding was approved by several other astronomers, and on March 13, 1930, the discovery of Pluto was publicly announced.
In 2006, for an object to be a planet, it needed to meet these three requirements defined by the IAU:
- It needed to be in orbit around the Sun – Yes, so maybe Pluto is a planet.
- It needed to have enough gravity to pull itself into a spherical shape – Pluto-check.
- It needed to have “cleared the neighborhood” of its orbit – Uh oh. Here’s the rule breaker. According to this, Pluto is not a planet.
Any object that doesn’t meet the 3rd criteria is considered a dwarf planet. And so, Pluto is a dwarf planet. There are still many objects with similar size and mass to Pluto jostling around its orbit. And until Pluto crashes into many of them and gains mass, it will remain a dwarf planet.
New Horizons has been en route for nine years, traveling more than 3 billion miles. The fly by was over in a matter of minutes, as the probe frantically took hundreds of photos and collected data on Pluto’s atmosphere, geology, and moons. All this data will be enormously valuable to scientists as they seek to understand our solar system and how it formed billions of years ago.
But it’d be a mistake to think that this mission is only exciting for scientists. New Horizons embodies a fundamental characteristic of our species: our urge for exploration, our desire to see a new world simply because it’s there. It represents the best of humanity, the heights of what we can accomplish through ingenuity, focus, and cooperation.
More than anything, this mission is about broadening our horizons — taking in just a little bit more of the impossibly vast universe we live in.
The Pluto encounter began in January 2015, with distant images of Pluto and Charon the team used mostly for navigation. As New Horizons sped closer and the Pluto system grew from a pair of tiny white dots into a dynamic, colorful system of worlds, the milestone that seemed so far away on that mild January day was becoming more and more real.
And as New Horizons began delivering the data and close-ups of Pluto and Charon that have dazzled the world – and opened the door to a new realm of the solar system that is unlike anything seen before – the sense of anticipation that began at launch has given way to a sense of pride and accomplishment.
Coming back to ‘Pluto,’ its potential is finally being realized by us, according to a recent discovery, reported in March 2016; Pluto being a backbencher 3.67 billion miles away from the sun seems to be tropical once; it was nourished by rivers and lakes of nitrogen. According to the scientists, may even have water on it now. This is because of Pluto’s odd rotation in space, which we considered as one of the mark downs can be what make it so special, only to us though it’s been the way it is since ages in the universe.
Well, it seems Pluto has been busy and has been up to something while we were dabbling in our mess of politics and money. The amount of geographical activity on the dwarf (the Tyrion Lannister of the solar system one might say, rarely given importance but showing the most activity!) has been immense to say the least as New Horizons brings us images of what seem to be mountains of ice floating on vast oceans made up of liquid nitrogen. The long pilgrimage that the planet takes around the sun results in a journey that is much crazier than the one Earth does, owing to the immense 120 degree axial tilt that it has, along with the need to constantly keep together a cluster of moons, especially the large one, Charon to tag along on this journey.
Now looking at the pictures of Pluto from the New Horizons mission, scientists declared Pluto as a planet again, albeit a dwarf. But does that matter to Pluto? Pluto doesn’t even know whether it is Pluto, or not, or just a ball of ice and rocks. Well, it is us selfish humans always trying to categorize each and everything, and that’s why we decide to categorize Pluto as a part of the solar system or not where Pluto or the universe don’t even care about all this at all. Rock on, Pluto! Keep it cool.