Ever since the discovery of Pluto by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930 our Solar System was known to have nine planets orbiting the Sun. “My Very Eager Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas” was a popular mnemonic in my elementary school days to help remember the order of major planets from Mercury outward. But in 2006, a controversial decision by the International Astronomical Union—spurred in part by Caltech astronomer Mike Brown—changed the specifications on what officially classifies a planet in the Solar System, thereby stripping Pluto of its 76-year-old designation. The reclassification, done by an in-person vote at a meeting in Prague (at which only about 400 of over 9,000 IAU members were in attendance) has been a topic of debate—often fierce—in the astronomical community ever since, and now some scientists are demanding to have it redefined again.
If you’re in love with space then you’ll fall head over heels for this: it’s a picture of Earth taken from the Voyager 1 spacecraft after it passed the orbit of Pluto back in 1990—on Valentine’s Day, no less. That image of our planet from almost 4 billion miles away inspired Carl Sagan to write his famous “Pale Blue Dot” passage, which reminds us that we are all just riding on “a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”
What would it look like to approach Pluto for a landing? Perhaps some day in the future a robotic mission will do exactly that and we’ll know for sure, but for now we have to use our imaginations…luckily we do have some incredible images of Pluto to help with the details, thanks to NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft!
Using images and data acquired by New Horizons during its historic close pass by Pluto on July 14, 2015, researchers have assembled a video simulating an approach to Pluto’s surface, centering in on a “landing site” along the edge of Sputnik Planum: the heart-shaped “sea” of nitrogen ice cells.
Watch the video below:
At first glance this pixelated picture may not look all that spectacular, but it gains a whole new meaning when you realize what it’s actually showing: a look at the most distant crescent moon ever seen! But this isn’t Earth’s moon; it’s Charon, Pluto’s largest companion, lit by the light from a Sun 3.2 billion miles away—some of it even reflected off Pluto.
Using a model similar to what meteorologists use to forecast weather and a computer simulation of the physics of evaporating ices, scientists have found evidence of snow and ice features on Pluto that, until now, had only been seen on Earth.
Read the rest of this story here: Scientists Offer Sharper Insight into Pluto’s Bladed Terrain
Recent findings from the New Horizons team reveal that Pluto’s third-largest satellite Nix is covered in the purest water ice yet observed in the dwarf planet system, even purer in spectra than what was seen on its slightly larger sibling Hydra. This analysis further supports the hypothesis that Pluto’s moons were created in an impact event that formed the Pluto-Charon system, over 4 billion years ago.