Pluto Gets its First Visitor from Planet Earth

by Michael Burch

Screen Shot 2015-03-09 at 12.56.41 PMIt may seem a little odd to find a story about the distant minor planet, Pluto in a neighborhood community paper, but with this author’s background in Astronomy I just could not resist the opportunity to write about it and there is a Philly connection. I’m certain that the big science story of this summer will probably be the world seeing the first close-up pictures of Pluto.

The best pictures to date of Pluto come from the Hubble Space Telescope but its images appear shadowy and dark, with no real surface detail. The New Horizons pictures will be hundreds of times better. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) New Horizons spacecraft has begun its long awaited encounter with the Pluto system. It has nearly reached its 4.67 billion mile destination and is expected to make its first close flyby of Pluto and its moons on July 14th.

This spacecraft is one of the fastest probes ever sent from earth, traveling at a launch speed away from earth at 36,373 mph; it set the record for the highest launch speed of a human made object from earth.

The probe was launched on January 2006 and it has taken nearly 10 years to reach the orbit of Pluto. It awoke from its hibernation in January after a journey of more than 3 billion miles and it will soon be close enough to send real detailed pictures of this most mysterious world. Pluto was first discovered by astronomer Clyde Tombaugh back in 1930.

Tombaugh died in 1997 and he will not be around to see the planet that he discovered. When most of us grew up Pluto was considered one of the nine classical planets. That all changed in 2006, when it was redesigned as a “dwarf planet” by the International Astronomical Union. These small worlds are the most numerous planet class in the solar system.

Pluto is the only planet like body in the solar system that has never been seen or visited by a space probe. At the end of the probe’s Pluto encounter, the device will be sent further into the Kuiper Belt region.

The Kuiper Belt is an area of space at the very end of our solar system, beyond the orbit of planets. By this time much of New Horizons data will have been downloaded to earth, leaving free space in the computer of the space probe. Now here’s the Philadelphia connection, our own Dr. Derrick Pitts, The chief astronomer of the Franklin Institute is working on a special project called “One Earth”. This project is supported and under development by a broad coalition of some of the world’s best scientists and Dr. Pitts sits on the advisory board of the project. If all goes according to plan project One Earth would upload new data into the spacecraft’s computer memory. This new data could contain almost anything about life on earth. What kind of information would YOU upload for future generations of space farers to find? Send us an email at and we will make sure it reaches Dr. Pitts at the Franklin Institute.


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