All eyes are on Pluto, the latest darling of our galaxy. On the morning of July 14, 2015, the New Horizons spacecraft came within 7,750 miles of Pluto in a historic data-gathering flyby. At a brisk 31,000 miles per hour, New Horizons has traveled 3 billion miles (4.8 billion km) over 9 ½ years and is now phoning home with images that are surpassing the wildest dreams of space scientists. While still nearly a week away from the closest approach to Pluto, New Horizons returned a valentine from the dwarf planet: A heart-shaped feature that dominated Pluto’s surface.
The New Horizons mission was decades in coming, a story of perseverance, dedication, and dreams of testing the human potential. The Pluto story began in 1930 with Clyde Tombaugh, a high school graduate with a love of outer space. He lived on a remote farm in Kansas, where he taught himself astronomy and trigonometry. He built his own telescopes and patiently sketched his observations. His drawings so impressed astronomers at the Lowell Observatory that they invited Tombaugh to work with their new telescope in Flagstaff, Arizona. There, after two years and thousands of hours gathering and studying millions of images of stars, Tombaugh discovered Pluto. (Academy of Achievement, 1991).
Pluto long remained a mystery, a fuzzy blob of light even from the most powerful telescope, but there was little serious discussion of exploring the outermost edge of the solar system. The impetus for unlocking this new frontier came from Alan Stern, planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute and New Horizons principal investigator. While still a graduate student in 1989, Stern suggested a Pluto mission to NASA. For many years, a small band of fellow Pluto enthusiasts known as the “Pluto Underground” campaigned for the mission. In 2001, NASA finally approved the project and Stern began assembling a team, which now includes hundreds of scientists, engineers, and technicians, about a quarter of whom are female. Young people were deliberately selected to help ensure that the people who invested so much of their career in the project would be around to see the outcome. (The Year of Pluto, 2015)
What story will Pluto ultimately tell us? Keep up with developing news on the official site for New Horizons: NASA’s Mission to Pluto, where scientists at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory post regular updates.
For more information on the New Horizons mission, including fact sheets, schedules, video and the latest images, visit http://www.nasa.gov/newhorizons
For more on how the New Horizons mission came into being, how it is carried out, and what it hopes to accomplish, watch the NASA documentary The Year of Pluto.
Read about the beginnings of the science of astronomy in our module Description in Scientific Research.
Academy of Achievement (1991). Interview with ClydeTombaugh, Discoverer of Planet Pluto: A Man of Universal Wonder. http://www.achievement.org/autodoc/page/tom0int-1
Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (2006.) Happy 100th Birthday, Clyde Tombaugh: NASA’s New Horizons Mission Salutes Pluto’s Discoverer, born Feb. 4, 1906. http://www.jhuapl.edu/newscenter/pressreleases/2006/060203.asp
NASA’s New Horizons website. http://www.nasa.gov/newhorizons
Written by Bonnie Denmark
Bonnie Denmark holds an MA in linguistics and teacher certification in English, ESL, and Spanish. She has devoted her professional life to educational and accessibility issues as a computational linguist, multimedia curriculum developer, educator, and writer. She has also worked nationally and internationally as a language instructor, educational technology consultant, and teacher trainer. Bonnie joined the Visionlearning team as a literacy specialist in 2011, assisting the project by developing comprehension aids for science modules and creating other STEM learning materials.