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Pluto and Charon

Pluto: planet or not, we’re finally going to see it up close.

There are those of us who have a tendency to root for the underdog, an affinity for that which is furthest away, most difficult to find. So it’s no surprise that growing up, Pluto was the planet that most fascinated me. Sure, it’s probably a relatively boring hunk of rock and ice, but Pluto’s sheer distance and unknowability created for me a sense of mystery that outweighed those reasonably pragmatic assumptions.

These days, of course, Pluto is mired in controversy. It is, we are told, no longer a “planet”. Pluto now officially belongs to a class called “dwarf planets”. (One does wonder how it is that a dwarf planet is not a planet, when the word “planet” is right there in its name, but let’s set aside linguistic semantics for the moment.)

The reasons why Pluto is no longer a planet are outlined fairly well here. On the other hand, planetary scientist Philip Metzger makes a pretty compelling case about why Pluto is a planet. Some even posit that if Pluto isn’t a planet, then neither are Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars, since it could be argued that our own planet has more in common with Pluto than it does with Jupiter or Saturn. All this debate about planets perhaps necessitates us taking a longer look at what we call a “moon”, since there are objects out there orbiting planets that we call moons but which are tiny specks. Maybe the real conclusion of all this is that any system of classification is inherently flawed.

Whatever Pluto is, it’s a big thing that orbits our Sun, and it’s worth looking at from a scientific perspective. In a couple of months, NASA’s New Horizons probe will take by far the closest look we’ve ever had, sending us the first detailed pictures ever of Pluto.

In order to pull this off, the spacecraft had to travel three billion miles over a period of nine and a half years, and then upon arrival hit a target 60 by 90 miles in size, within a window of 100 seconds, so that it can be in position to run all of its tests. That’s some serious sharpshooting.

For me, this is going to be exciting to watch, fulfilling that childhood desire to unravel a few of the mysteries of this far away hunk of rock and ice. I’ve got my popcorn ready.

More details about how the mission will go down in this press briefing:

 

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