From NASA Science:
One of the fastest spacecraft ever built -- NASA's New Horizons -- is hurtling through the void at nearly one million miles per day. Launched in 2006, it has been in flight longer than some missions last, and it is nearing its destination: Pluto.“The encounter begins next January,” says Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute and the mission’s principal investigator. “We’re less than a year away.”
Closest approach is scheduled for July 2015 when New Horizons flies only 10,000 km from Pluto, but the spacecraft will be busy long before that date. The first step, in January 2015, is an intensive campaign of photography by the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager or “LORRI.” This will help mission controllers pinpoint Pluto's location, which is uncertain by a few thousand kilometers.
"LORRI will photograph the planet against known background star fields," explains Stern. "We’ll use the images to refine Pluto’s distance from the spacecraft, and then fire the engines to make any necessary corrections.”
At first, Pluto and its large moon Charon will be little more than distant pinpricks—“a couple of fat pixels,” says Stern--but soon they will swell into full-fledged worlds.
By late April 2015, the approaching spacecraft will be taking pictures of Pluto that surpass the best images from Hubble. By closest approach in July 2015, a whole new world will open up to the spacecraft’s cameras. If New Horizons flew over Earth at the same altitude, it could see individual buildings and their shapes.
Stern is looking forward to one of the most exciting moments of the Space Age.
“Humankind hasn't had an experience like this--an encounter with a new planet [Huh? What planet? WTF? Stop toying with words and give ol' Pluto his Planetary ID card BACK, you bastards! - F.G.] --in a long time,” he says. “Everything we see on Pluto will be a revelation.”
He likens New Horizons to Mariner 4, which flew past Mars in July 1965. At the time, many people on Earth, even some scientists, thought the Red Planet was a relatively gentle world, with water and vegetation friendly to life. Instead, Mariner 4 revealed a desiccated wasteland of haunting beauty. New Horizons’ flyby of Pluto will occur almost exactly 50 years after Mariner 4’s flyby of Mars—and it could shock observers just as much.
Other than a few indistinct markings seen from afar by Hubble, Pluto’s landscape is totally unexplored. Although some astronomers call Pluto a “dwarf” planet, Stern says there’s nothing small about it. “If you drove a car around the equator of Pluto, the odometer would rack up almost 5,000 miles—as far as from Manhattan to Moscow.” Such a traveler might encounter icy geysers, craters, clouds, mountain ranges, rilles and valleys, alongside alien landforms no one has ever imagined.
“There is a real possibility that New Horizons will discover new moons and rings as well,” says Stern.
Yes, Pluto could have rings. [The Steelers have six. Get it? - F.G.] Already, Pluto has five known moons: Charon, Styx, Nix, Kerberos, and Hydra. Numerical simulations show that meteoroids striking those satellites could send debris into orbit, forming a ring system that waxes and wanes over time in response to changes in bombardment.
“We’re flying into the unknown,” says Stern, “and there is no telling what we might find.”
I'm going to go waaaaaay out on a limb and guess they discover that Pluto looks remarkably like a freakin' planet!
As one ages, one begins to take comfort in the little things [very very teeny tiny things] that never change, like the intellectualoid horrorshow that still goes by the name Slate.com.
...On July 14, 2015, the New Horizons spacecraft will whip past Pluto at
more than 30,000 miles per hour after a flight lasting almost a decade.
It carries what mission director Alan Stern calls "the best
first-reconnaissance set of instruments for a planet, ever." We've had
some amazing first looks at the four giant planets over the decades:
majestic Jupiter and its bizarre moons, Saturn's ethereal rings, and the
ocean-hued Uranus and Neptune. If you're old enough to remember the
transformations of those bodies from blobs to fully realized worlds by
the Voyager missions, you know the potential impact of Pluto's debut.
Pluto's tenuous atmosphere is another focus for New Horizons. From Earth, it's a nearly imperceptible wisp around Pluto's margins. The light-and-dark patterns seen by Hubble are the barest hint that the atmosphere and the surface interact as the planet's climate changes. Pluto's oval orbit takes it so far away (up to about 50 times the distance from Earth to the sun) that the atmosphere may freeze out as bright crystals onto a surface tinged red by methane. The spacecraft also may see clouds and fog: Plutonian meteorology, driven by the planet's all-natural [Golly. The retromingent pansies at Slate.com didn't blame it on the Koch brothers. Will wonders never cease? - F.G.] global warming and cooling.
The barely-there atmosphere has kept us from knowing exactly how big Pluto is. Marc Buie, Stern's colleague at SwRI, wrote his Ph.D. thesis on Pluto as a last-minute swap 30 years ago, and the planet's elusive size has fascinated him since. "We're finally going to know the diameter of Pluto!" he told me in an urgent voice that only an obsessed scientist could conjure. For the record, Buie's published estimate is 2,306 kilometers (1,433 miles) in diameter. (In contrast, Earth's moon is 3,475 kilometers wide.) But Buie confided: "I think it's closer to 2,320 kilometers." Stay tuned!...
From Fox News:
Our little corner of the universe just got a little more crowded.Scientists at the Carnegie Carnegie Institution for Science announced Wednesday the discovery of a new cosmic neighbor -- a distant dwarf planet named 2012 VP113 that was found spinning in the depths of space well past Pluto. Its existence suggests there may be another actual planet out there, they said, a rogue giant ten times bigger than Earth orbiting in the distant blackness.
One thing is clear: Astronomers will have to rethink the cosmic limits of our solar system.
"This is an extraordinary result that redefines our understanding of our solar system," Linda Elkins-Tanton, director of Carnegie’s Department of Terrestrial Magnetism, said in a press release.
Wouldn't it be cool to have a tee shirt or a hat or a badge that reads Department of Terrestrial Magnetism? That's why scientists get all the hot chicks, kiddies.
'Some of these objects could rival the size of Mars or even Earth.' - Scott Sheppard of the Gemini ObservatoryThe solar system as we know it today is divided into three parts: First come the rocky, Earth-like planets that are closest to the sun, next the gas giant planets like Jupiter and Saturn, and finally the frozen objects in the Kuiper Belt outside of Neptune's orbit.
Pluto, which was demoted from planet status to dwarf planet in 2006, lives in the Kuiper Belt. And in it there appears to be a clear edge to the solar system 50 astronomical units out (AUs, a measure of the distance from the Earth to the sun) -- with the exception of the 2003 discovery of Sedna, one of those frozen objects that was believed until now to be the furthest known thing from the sun.
Sedna lives in a region of space called the Oort cloud, a vast region of space that may be where many comets come from. Sedna lives in it, and the discovery of 2012 VP113 suggests that there may nearly 1,000 objects beyond that 50 AU "end" of the solar system.
"The search for these distant inner Oort cloud objects beyond Sedna and 2012 VP113 should continue, as they could tell us a lot about how our solar system formed and evolved," Carnegie’s Scott Sheppard of the Gemini Observatory said in a press release.
2012 VP113 is located 80 times the distance of the Earth from the sun (80 AUs), while Sedna is at 76 AU.
Sheppard and fellow researcher Chadwick Trujillo determined that the Oort cloud is likely bigger than the Kuiper Belt and main asteroid belt. And the similarity in the orbits of Sedna, 2012 VP113 and a few other objects out there suggests that a massive planet may be shepherding them. Sheppard and Trujillo suggest a super Earth or an even larger object at hundreds of AU could create the shepherding effect seen in the orbits of these objects, which are too distant to be pulled on significantly by any of the known planets.
"Some of these inner Oort cloud objects could rival the size of Mars or even Earth," said Sheppard. "This is because many of the inner Oort cloud objects are so distant that even very large ones would be too faint to detect with current technology."
The findings are published in the March 27 edition of Nature.