A Visit to Pluto
Artist's depiction of the New Horizons spacecraft in orbit around Pluto. (click
The New Horizons spacecraft is currently on a 9-year-long journey to Pluto and beyond.
This will be the first time that a spacecraft visits the remote dwarf planet and
its three moons Charon, Nix, and Hydra. The unmanned spacecraft will fly by Pluto
and its moons by June, 2015. Although New Horizons won't actually land on Pluto,
it will come close enough for a detailed exploration of its surface, features, and
NASA launched the New Horizons spacecraft on January 19, 2006. New Horizons carries
a set of advanced instruments including high definition cameras, telescopes, particle
detectors, sensors, and even a dust counter. These instruments will determine the
composition and structure of Pluto's surface and atmosphere. The cameras will give
us the first detailed view of Pluto's surface.
Even though we have detailed images of every planet in the Solar System, so far
no telescope or spacecraft has been able to take detailed pictures of Pluto due
to its very remote location. The best pictures of Pluto available were taken by
the Hubble Telescope orbiting Earth. However, the images are very blurry because
of the incredibly long distance to Pluto and its small size. The image below shows
one of the best pictures we have of Pluto, showing its possible true color. However,
the image doesn't show any detailed surface features. We won't know for sure what
Pluto really looks like until New Horizons takes some snapshots and sends the pictures
back to Earth in 2015.
This is the best image of Pluto we have so far. As you can see, it's impossible
to see any detail. Click the image for a large version.
After the Pluto fly-by, New Horizons will continue traveling to the far reaches
of the Solar System. It will continue studying objects beyond Pluto and will continue
sending data back to Earth for several years after the Pluto fly-by.
Images courtesy of NASA.
Dwarf Planet: a rocky body that orbits the Sun. It's considered too small
to be a planet.