NASA guest blog: Hello Pluto!
Something amazing is about to happen this month: we humans are about to explore the distant planet Pluto, more than three billion miles away.
It sounds like science fiction, but it’s not. On July 14, a small, unmanned spaceship—about the size of a grand piano—will undertake the exploration of Pluto and its system of moons, the farthest worlds humankind has ever reached. We have little idea what we’ll find—only that we expect to be surprised.
The project is called New Horizons because, metaphorically, that is what we’ll be seeing. At closest approach, New Horizons will send back the first ever close-up views of Pluto. If our spacecraft were flying over New York City at the same altitude, it could see the wharfs on the Hudson River and the ponds in Central Park.
The National Academy of Science ranked the reconnaissance of the Pluto system at the very top of NASA’s exploration priorities. Why? Because in the 1990s, planetary astronomers discovered a vast new structure in our solar system called the Kuiper Belt, a previously unknown disk of comets and small planets beyond Neptune. Pluto is the Kuiper Belt’s first discovered, brightest, and largest known of them.
The Kuiper Belt is the largest known structure in our planetary system, covering three times more the territory than all that exists from the Sun to Neptune. Even more exciting, it’s the astronomical equivalent of an archeological dig into the era of planet formation, 4.6 billion years ago. Did you know that within the Kuiper Belt, the number of small planetary bodies far outnumber the larger planets closer in? Yet, after a more than a half century of space exploration, none of these small planets has ever been visited. Until now.
When New Horizons reaches Pluto on July 14, the United States will complete the historic first exploration of every planet in our solar system, from Mercury to Pluto. No other nation has been first to explore all of the planets.
Nothing like New Horizons has happened in a generation, and nothing like it is planned or even contemplated to happen again, by any nation. The mission has captivated people around the world, from schoolkids to scientists.
You can come along by following New Horizons on television, the Internet, and social media (e.g., Twitter hashtag #PlutoFlyby) and experience the exploration of a new world in real time. Bring your children and grandchildren, and your friends and coworkers too. Come with us, and our team, to share the thrill of discovery and see some new horizons.
Written by S. Alan Stern
Planetary scientist Dr. S. Alan Stern is the principal investigator for NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto; he tweets as NewHorizons2015.
To celebrate the New Horizons mission’s historic Pluto flyby we teamed up with NASA to give you the biggest ever Angry Birds Space update – Solar System! You can follow the countdown to the flyby in the game!