NASA's New Horizons robot spacecraft is almost mid way on its nine-year deep-space voyage to the planet Pluto-ok, dwarf planet or Kuiper Belt Object or-whatever current buzz word you want to slug this fascinating world.
The plutonium-powered spacecraft, traveling at 47,000 mph, will flyby chilly Pluto in July 2015. If successful, it will be the first humanmade object ever to reach Pluto approximately 3 billion miles from Earth.
New Mexico astronomer Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto accidentally in 1930. I had the pleasure of meeting and chatting with Tombaugh in 1977 at a meeting of the Lehigh Valley Amateur Astronomical Society in Allentown, Pa. Tombaugh was a gentle and humble man. I think he would be proud of the New Horizons mission to reach this smallest of planets.
Pluto is the farthest, large planetary body from our Sun. Occasionally, Pluto gives up this position to Neptune due to the unusual, elliptical Plutonian orbit. A year on Pluto lasts 248 terrestrial years.
In 2000, after scrubbing its Pluto Fast Flyby, later renamed Kuiper-Pluto Express mission, space agency officials were forced to reconsider their mistake when many scientists and vocal pro-space groups protested loudly. "We have to get to Pluto quickly," the experts claimed. So, from the ashes of the PFF/KPE mission was born New Horizons. But what's the hurry and why should we visit Pluto now, you may ask?
As it moves away from the Sun, Pluto's atmosphere will re-freeze falling to the surface as a nitrogen-carbon dioxide-methane snow sometime around the year 2020. Hence, scientists are anxious to get to Pluto now, while it still has a gaseous atmosphere. Missing the January-February 2006 launch date would have meant waiting until the year 2200 when Pluto's long-sleeping atmosphere sublimes back from ice to gas.
What will we find when we finally visit Pluto?