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New Horizons Spacecraft Reaches Pluto, Continues into Kuiper Belt

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

New Horizons spacecraft, launched in the year 2006, has travelled over 3 billion miles to reach Pluto, once thought to be the ninth planet of our solar system but in the same year demoted to “dwarf” status.  It does not dominate the neighborhood around its orbit like a planet should but rather joins over 40 other similar objects comprising the Kuiper Belt.

Nonetheless, on July 14th at 7:49 a.m. ET, the piano-size spacecraft flew by Pluto about 7,750 miles from its surface, according to NASA.  It will then continue its journey into the Kuiper belt.  The speed of the New Horizons spacecraft is 8.5 miles per second, or 40 times that of a speeding bullet. At 36,000 miles per hour, it was the fastest launched spacecraft in history travelling past Earth’s moon in just nine hours.

Why is a close flyby to Pluto like a new discovery ?

Since space observations depend on the amount of light incident to a telescope – either directly or reflected - planets that are distant from their solar center, or sun, can barely be detectable.  That’s why Pluto wasn’t discovered until 1930, when Clyde Tombaugh noticed a “dot of light” was changing positions within the star constellations. 

The most accurate photos of Pluto will not be made until now. 

Although considered exciting to decipher new data from the New Horizons flyby, some of the major concerns of Pluto have already been studied due to observations made by the Hubble Telescope.  Pluto’s five moons – the largest being Charon plus Styx, Nix, Kerberos, and Hydra – are synced in such a way that it suggests that they formed from debris left behind after something big slammed into Pluto.  The four smaller moons are shown to be as tightly packed as possible in backing this claim.  Pluto’s moons keep returning to the same configuration such that Charon completes three orbits, for example, in the same time Styx makes one.  Since it is unlikely this synced motion is chance, they probably have the same origin.  What’s more, Kerberos may be part of the body that hit Pluto and the other moons remnants of Pluto itself. 

Better views of the moons should be coming soon from the new data received by New Horizons.