Yesterday marked one year since the New Horizons space probe made it’s flyby of Pluto. That also means it’s been over a year that I’ve been working on writing a book about the mission. Uhm, wow.
It’s been quite a year. The New Horizons mission was historic. It was the first mission to Pluto and the first to visit anything that far away in our solar system.
Scientists made many amazing discoveries. First off, Pluto has a heart. And it has a heartbeat! (Ok, not really, but it makes a good headline.) The heart is known as Sputnik Planum and it’s made of nitrogen ice. On Earth nitrogen exists as a gas in our atmosphere, but Pluto is cold enough for it to freeze into ice. Nitrogen periodically bubbles up out of the planets crust and spreads out over the heart. The rest of the planet may be roughed up with craters and mountains, but the heart is nice and smooth. These “heartbeats” are like spreading a layer of frosting over a cake – it gives it a nice smooth finish. A frigid, icy heart would be a bad thing for a person, but for a planet it’s just plain cool.
We also found out that Pluto is bigger than we thought. That’s a big deal. In 2006 the International Astronomical Union ruled that Pluto wasn’t a real planet – it is part of a new class called dwarf planets. The decision was spurred when a researcher discovered something out past Neptune that was bigger than Pluto. Many such things had been found but this was the first that was bigger than Pluto. If Pluto was a planet, so was this new thing. And it might not end there; one estimate is that there are hundreds of these things. Rather than let new members to the planet club, Pluto got demoted. Not all scientists agree with the decision. The head of the New Horizons mission has been particularly vocal in his disagreement with the decision. So you can imagine how he felt when it turned out Pluto was the biggest dwarf planet after all.
It’s not over, though. A year out from the New Horizons flyby of Pluto and we’re still getting data back from the probe. It’s so far away and uses so little power that sending information back to Earth is slower than a turtle in molasses. We’ll still be getting new data until October. It also takes scientists awhile to make sense of all that information. We’ve learned a lot, but we will still be making new discoveries for years to come.
In 2019, New Horizons will make another historic first. It will be the first to flyby a Kuiper Belt Object. The Kuiper belt is a band of icy, rocky objects far out past Neptune in our solar system. Some dwarf planets orbit out in the Kuiper belt but mostly Kuiper belt objects are just lumpy rocks covered in ice. That might not sounds that interesting, but scientists would disagree. Those lumpy rocks haven’t changed since our solar system formed. Studying one of these Kuiper belt objects up close will tell us a lot about the early solar system. New Horizons could unlock secrets of our early solar system.
As exciting as this year has been for science, its not over yet.
Happy Flyby-versary, New Horizons! Here’s to many more.