After a nine-year-long journey, NASA’s New Horizons finally reached the remote planet Pluto, and the data collected during the historic flyby is so vast that it would take years for researchers to analyze it exhaustively.
Pluto is located 4.67 billion miles away from Earth. NASA’s spacecraft was launched in 2006 and performed its first flyby of the planet on July 14, this year. The distance it had to travel was three times greater than that from our planet to Uranus and nearly twice the distance to Neptune.
The craft had to travel really fast to get there in due time. At speeds that sometimes reached 50,000 mph it required nearly a decade for the probe to reach its destination. But the July flyby also meant a major milestone for the U.S. – the country is the only one in the world to visit each and every planet of our solar system.
The data beamed back by New Horizons, however, showed that scientists were wrong when forecasting some of the planet’s features. Pluto, for instance, is lager than previously thought. It is 1,473-mile-wide, which means that it is smaller than the moon but about 20 percent the size of our planet.
When the probe was first launched, it was described as the fastest man-made vehicle out there with speeds of up to 36,000 mph. In just one year, on Feb. 27, 2007, the craft entered Jupiter’s orbit. NASA engineers manipulated the probe so that it can make use of Jupiter’s gravitational pull to collect an extra 9,000 mph of speed and literally be propelled five years ahead. Without the maneuver, the orbiter would have reached Pluto in 2020.
During its flyby of Jupiter, the craft’s cameras caught the first volcanic explosion recorded in space. The explosion occurred on one of Jupiter’s moons Io. Those same cameras and scientific instruments are expected to reveal a lot more about Pluto in the coming months.
The recently released images of the dwarf planet were taken with help from the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI), the craft heaviest and most accurate camera. LORRI is so perfectly calibrated that it can get a detailed image of Manhattan from a 7,000 mile distance.
The images of Pluto beamed back by LORRI are more detailed and sharper than what we have from Hubble. Though, Hubble can get photo snaps of galaxies located zillions of miles away, the imagery of Pluto was less accurate because of the size of the planet and lack of light.
New Horizons now plans to use the Solar Wind Around Pluto (SWAP) tool to explore Pluto by measuring how solar winds affects the matter on the planet’s surface due to its low gravity the Venetia Burney Student Dust Counter (SDC) to measure the cosmic collisions between space bodies in the Kuiper belt.
NASA scientists hope to find a definite answer to why Pluto is the largest dwarf planet in the belt and put an end to the debates related to its status as a planet.
Image Source: Daily Mail