New Horizons

My brothers and I were looking forward to a hefty meal – we adore pizzas, which our mother promised us for lunch. She sounded really excited about it perhaps because she would have a break from the kitchen. But my very eager mother never served us the nine pizzas. To our disappointment, we found out that pizzas were off the menu. But it wasn’t such a big deal after all – we had some delicious pancakes instead. Pizzas replaced by delicious pancakes – that doesn’t sound too bad.

You might have guessed by now, that I’m alluding to the planets and the fact that Pluto got demoted from its “planet” status to that of a “dwarf planet”. The reason I bring this up is because in less than an hour from now we will witness a historic moment: the New Horizons spacecraft will be at its closest approach to Pluto. At precisely 11:49:57 GMT, New Horizons will be about 12.5 thousand kilometres from the surface of Pluto, which, on an astronomical scale, really means that it will be grazing off the surface.

Artist impression of New Horizons Pluto fly-by © NASA

Artist impression of New Horizons Pluto fly-by © NASA

Never have we been so close to Pluto before. This will be an amazing opportunity to gather never-seen footage of the dwarf planet’s surface. We’ll have an unprecedented insight to its geology and climate. This will allow scientists to understand the composition of Pluto and other objects like it.

The solar system consists of the four rocky planets (Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars), the asteroid belt, the gas giants (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune) and the Kuiper Belt, which is a collection of icy bodies in the outermost region of the system. We used to think that Pluto was one of the outer planets, just beyond the orbit of Neptune, but closer study of its properties revealed that it is more like the icy planets in that far-flung region of the solar system. The Kuiper Belt is thought to be the remains from the formation of the solar system some 4.6 billion years ago.

Once New Horizons has grabbed whatever information it can from Pluto, it will carry on its journey to explore the Kuiper Belt. It began its voyage on 19 January 2006 and after travelling more than 4.7 billion kilometres, it will finally fly by Pluto to glance at its beauty. Given its high speed, New Horizon will have a few hours to be at such proximity to Pluto before it carries on to venture into the depths of the Kuiper Belt.

This is an incredible achievement of humankind. Since its discovery in 1930, Pluto has captured everyone’s imagination, from astronomers to Disney artists. Now we will finally get a clearer understanding of the icy dwarf and her companions. New Horizons is on its way to collect the data which will allow us to piece together the astounding story about the origins of our solar system.

To infinity and beyond!

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