Remember that comet-no-wait-asteroid astronomers discovered in October on a high-velocity hyperbolic orbit around the Sun? It has been determined that the object must be of interstellar origin and, based on follow-up observations over the past several weeks, it’s shaped like nothing that’s ever been seen before.
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.
It’s happened! At 7:49 a.m. EDT (11:49 UTC) this morning, July 14 2015, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft performed its close pass of Pluto and, fourteen minutes later, its moon Charon. While we won’t receive a signal from New Horizons until about 9 p.m. tonight (and image data from the flyby won’t arrive until July 15th) NASA did share this gorgeous image this morning just before the flyby. it was taken by New Horizons on July 13th and has a resolution of about 4 km (2.4 miles) per pixel, and shows the distant world in approximate true-color. It’s highly-publicized “heart” feature is seen front-and-center – proof that Pluto loves ya!
And, according to New Horizons PI Dr. Alan Stern, this is but a teaser for the “data waterfall” that’s to begin arriving tomorrow! What an amazing day for science.
“The New Horizons team is proud to have accomplished the first exploration of the Pluto system. This mission has inspired people across the world with the excitement of exploration and what humankind can achieve.”
– Dr. Alan Stern, New Horizons PI, SwRI
The spacecraft is now moving away from the Pluto system at over 30,000 mph. It will spend the next 16 months transmitting data from the flyby back to Earth so scientists can fill in the long-missing gaps on our knowledge of Pluto and its family of moons.
Check back at the New Horizons site for updates.
“It’s truly amazing that humankind can go out and explore these worlds.”
– Alice Bowman, New Horizons Mission Operations Manager
Update: I had a chance to talk about Pluto with Nerdist.com writer Sarah Keartes – check out her article here.
Also, there was a funny segment by Stephen Colbert and Neil deGrasse Tyson (whom I do not completely agree with regarding Pluto) on the night of the flyby about these images of Pluto – check that out below!