Stephen Hawking, the Cambridge cosmologist united with the celebration sending congratulations via recorded medium, “Billions of miles from Earth this little robotic spacecraft will show us that first glimpse of mysterious Pluto, a distant icy world on the edge of our solar system. The revelations of New Horizons may help us to understand better how our solar system was formed. We explore because we are human and we long to know.”
Shuffling feet at the sound of metal band Europe’s “The Final Countdown,” US is now the only country to have visited almost every planet that was ever mentioned in the classical solar system. NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft epic 8,000 miles fly-by of Pluto on Tuesday is now etched in a long historical string of missions to our quest for conquering the solar system. The probe shot past at more than 28,000 mph (45,000 km/h) at 12.49 pm BST (7.49 am ET) on a trajectory that actually brought the fastest spacecraft ever to leave our Earth’s orbit within 7,770 miles of dwarf planet, Pluto’s surface. New Horizons blasted off for its destination in January 2006, carrying the ashes of Clyde Tombaugh, the astronomer who discovered Pluto in 1930.
Scientists across the globe have been impatiently waiting for this glorious moment.
New Horizons is a hugely important achievement because it reveals to us the last world in the solar system, the Kuiper belt. And this fly-by is a major leap in understanding the approximate measurements of the targets. While the fly-by is only at the nascent state of exploring Pluto and its moon, it has indeed laid down the foundations for an in-depth study in nearby future.
While we are as excited as you are and rejoice the achievement, here are some important know-hows for your information:
Why a fly-by?
The gravity of Pluto is extremely weak, which makes orbiting Pluto impossible. Considering the fact that there was only a reasonable amount of time at hand, the spacecraft needed to be very very slow.
Why a clear picture of Pluto eluded us so far?
Pluto’s face has been well hidden from us because it lies in the third zone of space. If we open our geography book now, we will find Pluto just like a blurry blob. It is too small and dim, that even our most powerful telescopes like Hubble can hardly detect it.
The latest image of Pluto sent by New Horizon represents at least 4 kilometers each pixel and the image is 1000 times the resolution of anything from Hubble.
Oriented with Pluto’s north at the top, the image shows the dark regions (not shadowed) of planet’s equator, about 2/3rds the diameter of Earth’s moon. And there are the moons – Charon, Hydra, Styx, Nix, and Kerberos.
No more blurry pictures of Pluto?
Right. The recent images streaming back from the New Horizons are better than the existing ones at hand, ever taken of the dwarf planet. Just decades ago, we had to satisfy ourselves with the indistinct image of Pluto taken by the Hubble Space Telescope in 1993. On the right, is the latest taken by New Horizons before the fly-by.
Time taken to send a photo to Earth of Pluto?
Travelling at the same speed as light, Radio signals are taking around 4.4 hours to travel between Pluto and our Earth. It will take approximately 16 months for all of New Horizon’s data to make it to Earth indicating new information of 2015 will be carried over to 2016.
New information about Pluto?
At a recent press conference, New Horizons’ top dog Alan Stern said that his team was successful in calculating the accurate diameter of Pluto- about 1,473 miles from one end to the other, give or take 12 miles. With the approval of NASA, New Horizons will carry forward newer missions in order to study more about the icy world of Pluto within a span of five years.
Prior the Pluto fly-by, what did New Horizons do?
During the long nine years that it took to reach Pluto, it spent a lot of its time hibernating and occasionally waking up for system tests. When it flew by the giant Neptune’s orbit in 2014, the picture it took, unfortunately, looked just like a faint dot.
What next post-Pluto fly-by?
The spacecraft which is powered by a nuclear generator that runs on plutonium, a substance named after the dwarf planet is expected to run until the 2030s, when New Horizons will be around 100 times further away than Earth is from the sun.
Planetary status for Pluto?
Earlier astronomers at the International Astronomical Union actually voted to change the traditional definition of the word “planet” as it downgrades Pluto to a mere diminutive “dwarf planet”. The success of the fly-by promises to stir up the issue, maybe in favour of Pluto and see it restored to full planetary status. On NASA TV, in a live interview, Charles Bolden, Nasa’s chief administrator said that he hoped the scientists would reconsider the name. “I call it a planet, but I’m not the rule maker,” he said, adding that arguments over Pluto’s status should not detract from the achievement. “It should be a day of incredible pride.”
“We are a country of explorers,” said John Grunsfeld, NASA’s top official for science, just before the New Horizons team initiated a countdown marking the spacecraft’s closest approach to the dwarf planet. “I’m extremely proud to be part of the country that first explored the whole solar system.”
Partha Pratim Barua
Image Source: The Viewspaper