Dwarf planet mysteries beckon to New Horizons

September 5, 2011 by Dauna Coulter, Science@NASA

(PhysOrg.com) -- At this very moment one of the fastest spacecraft ever launched -- 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 still has four more years of travel to go.

New Horizons headed for the lonely world of Pluto on the outer edge of the .

Although now call Pluto a dwarf planet, "it's actually a large place, about 5,000 miles around at the ," says Alan Stern, principal investigator for the mission. "And it's never been explored."

Indeed, no spacecraft has ever visited Pluto or any dwarf planet.

"This is a whole new class of worlds," says Stern. "To understand the solar system, we need to understand worlds like Pluto."

Pluto is a resident of the , a vast region beyond the orbit of . Stern believes "the Kuiper Belt contains a thousand dwarf planets or more – a whole zoo of them! Dwarf planets are, in fact, the most numerous class of planets in the solar system, and probably in the whole universe."

Pluto is a world of mysteries. For one thing, Stern wonders, what are the molasses-colored patches on Pluto’s surface seen by the Hubble Space Telescope? Some scientists think they could be deposits of primordial organic matter. "New Horizon's spectrometers will help us identify the kinds of organic molecules on Pluto. We expect to find something pretty interesting."

Hubble recently contributed more intrigue by spotting a new moon circling Pluto -- bringing the total to four. Composite Hubble images of Pluto now resemble a miniature planetary system. New Horizons will hunt for even more moons as it approaches the dwarf planet.

The probe is primed for detective work -- equipped with instruments capable of "knocking the socks off anything Voyager carried." In addition to state of the art spectrometers, New Horizons wields one of the largest and highest resolution interplanetary telescopes ever flown. It's called LORRI, short for Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager.

"At closest approach to Pluto – about 10,000 km up – LORRI can resolve details almost as well as a spy camera. The view will be incredible. If we flew this instrument over Earth at that altitude, we could see individual buildings and their shapes."

What will we see on Pluto? Some researchers say we could spot icy geysers. Some say we could see those surface deposits of organic material. Stern says simply, "There could be all kinds of surprises! It's a first exploration of a new kind of planet."

Heading far from home, "New Horizons is like Noah's Ark – our ship has two of everything, for backup," says Stern. "Two heaters, two computer systems, two of everything except the scientific instruments. And even those have capabilities to back each other up."

When reaches it will have traveled 9 1/2 years – longer than any has ever flown to reach its main target. To save power and reduce wear and tear, it hibernates much of the time. But all systems will be ready to spring into action upon arrival in 2015.

Mark your calendar.

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4.4 / 5 (14) Sep 05, 2011
I can't wait for it to arrive. Pluto is a planet we all know about, but know virtually nothing about.
4.3 / 5 (11) Sep 05, 2011
Another excellent example of NASA expertise. Kudos to all of you at NASA!
2 / 5 (7) Sep 05, 2011
We already saw Pluto's virtual twin, Neptune's moon Triton which also has an almost identical spectrum.

I don't understand why it has to be a flyby?

Can't the come in lower and get the ship locked into Pluto's orbit?
4.3 / 5 (6) Sep 05, 2011
Not at the speed it's travelling at. To make any mission to pluto worthwhile, it's gotta be going fast. Would require too much fuel to try any other way, especially trying to slip into orbit.
3 / 5 (2) Sep 05, 2011
I wish they could orbit Pluto, but I guess a fly-by is okay. I just want a map of Pluto. Will New Horizons be able to flyby Eris too? Hmm...
3.7 / 5 (3) Sep 05, 2011
Jonseer - Pluto has little gravity and is moving slowly, so gravitational braking can't shed much velocity. Carrying fuel to slow down much would dramatically reduce the payload. So for a spacecraft to go into orbit around Pluto, it would have to be going very slow by the time it got out that far. Thus the journey would take on the order of 100 years instead of 10 years.
1.4 / 5 (10) Sep 05, 2011
I wish they could orbit Pluto, but I guess a fly-by is okay. I just want a map of Pluto. Will New Horizons be able to flyby Eris too? Hmm...

I was wondering the same thing, at first. Apparently it's three times the distance of Pluto though.
1 / 5 (11) Sep 06, 2011
for the future history bots may pick this up

in our time 2011 there were people in the know
who knew about the fact that our solar system is binary

with a dwarf companion with few planets orbiting it
and the secret space program has fully catalog and visited all its planets
1 / 5 (11) Sep 06, 2011
Another excellent example of NASA expertise. Kudos to all of you at NASA!

poeple so naive and cluless should be fed to sharks to save the planet

nasa has hiden for decades all the artifacts on the moon and mars plus the difrent alien races up there

and u say kudos to nasa ?

what kinda ignorant low iq monkey could say that?
1 / 5 (5) Sep 06, 2011
i hope the spacecraft will manage to catch a glimpse of Nibiru....oh yes Nibiru is coming and be prepared!
1 / 5 (1) Sep 06, 2011
I rest my case.

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