What an Incredible Scientific Achievement
Launched in January 2006, the new Horizons Space probe has traveled 3,000,000,000 miles to make a flyby encounter with Pluto and its moons Charon, Styx, Nix, Kerberos and Hydra. Yesterday, New Horizons mission principal investigator Alan Stern announced, “We have completed the initial reconnaissance of the Solar System, an endeavor started under President Kennedy more than 50 years ago and continuing to today under President Obama.”
In astronomical terms, Pluto was discovered fairly recently, in 1930. In the early 20th century astronomers Percival Lowell and William Pickering calculated there must be yet another planet in our solar system, dubbed Planet X, that would explain the very slight perturbations they observed in the orbits of Uranus and Neptune. Lowell hired Clyde Tombaugh, a young, enthusiastic astronomy buff to to search for Planet X at the Lowell Observatory. And search he did. Tombaugh used a “blink” display device to look at countless photographic plates, looking for faint movement of an object from one plate to another. On Tuesday, February 18, 1930 he made the discovery, in the area of the sky Lowell had predicted.
Such Excitement! But What to Name this New Planet?
The worldwide press was caught up in the news and suggestions poured in. Then 11-year-old Venetia Burney (whose adult married name was Venetia Phair) submitted her suggestion, Pluto, to her grandfather, who was a librarian at Oxford. The meaning of the name Pluto comes from Greek and Roman mythology for the ruler of the underworld, along with Zeus (ruler of the sky) and Poseidon (ruler of the seas). Whether intentional or not, the initial letters of the name Pluto also honored Percival Lowell. Pluto became the official name for the ninth planet in the solar system, and was committed to memory by schoolchildren with mnemonics like “My Very Excellent Mother Just Served Us Nine Pickles.”
New Horizon: An Audacious Mission to Fly By Pluto
Fast forward to 2006. Clyde Tombaugh has passed away nine years earlier. But in honor of his discovery, the New Horizons space probe launches on January 19, 2006 from Cape Canaveral with his ashes on board. (Don’t say that scientists aren’t sentimental!) But by this time however there has been some scientific reassessment of Tombaugh’s discovery. It turns out that Pluto is much smaller than was thought back in the 1930s. It’s mass is not nearly as much as that of planet Earth — as was thought at that time. And the perturbations in the orbits of Uranus and Neptune seem to have a different cause: the mass of Neptune, as it turns out, is smaller than originally thought.
Further discoveries were made in Pluto’s neighborhood, which is now called the Kuiper Belt — a region with many other bodies, such as the dwarf planet Eris, which is nearly the same size as Pluto. As a result, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) reclassified Pluto as a dwarf planet in 2005, leading to a worldwide uproar on social media! As far as scientists are concerned, while some may regret or wish to reverse the downgrading of Pluto from planet to dwarf planet status, the main benefit is the public’s affection for Pluto and their increased interest in the astronomical discovery.
Congratulations All Around for a Job Well Done!
In last night’s overnight press conference, leaders of the New Horizons mission expressed their heartfelt excitement and relief that the mission appears to have come off without a hitch. Breakout media star Alice Bowman, the mission operations manager, said it best: “I’m not sure how to follow that. I haven’t had a lot of sleep. It is truly… amazing. An awesome team, the recovery was flawless and it had to be flawless. We were up to the challenge and we met it.” “And on a personal note, I can’t express how I’m feeling to achieve a childhood dream a space exploration.” “I’m pretty overwhelmed at this moment and I just want to say thank you to everyone and please tell your children, and anybody out there.” “Do what you’re passionate about. Don’t do something because it’s easy. Do something because you want to do it. Give yourself that challenge. And you will not be sorry for. Here we go! Out to the solar system!”
We look forward to the next briefing by NASA, which will be held this afternoon. And there’s more exciting scientific data to come. During New Horizon’s rapid flyby of Pluto, it captured tremendous amounts of data. It will actually take up to 16 months or so for all this scientific information to stream back to earth. We’ll be waiting to find out what’s next.
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