New Horizons Spacecraft Now Closer to Pluto Than Earth

Fastest Spacecraft

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The New Horizons spacecraft crossed a milestone boundary today: it is now closer to its primary destination, Pluto, than to Earth. But New Horizons –the fastest man-made object — is not yet halfway to the dwarf planet. That won’t happen until February 25, 2010. New Horizons is now 1,440 days into its 9.5-year journey and well past 15 AU (astronomical units) from the Sun. But there is a long haul yet to go: there are still 1,928 days until operations begin for the close encounter, and 2022 days until the spacecraft reaches the closest point to Pluto in the summer of 2015. It is exciting to think what we will learn about Pluto and the Kuiper Belt in five and a half years. Will our perspectives change? Hard to believe they won’t.

New Horizons is currently traveling at about 50,000 kph (31,000 mph) (relative to the Sun) and is located about 2.4 billion kilometers (1.527 billion miles) from Earth.

The spacecraft launched in January 2006.

New Horizons will be taken out of hibernation in early January to repoint the communications dish antenna to keep up with the changing position of the Earth around the Sun. It was last awoken in November to download several months of stored science data from the Venetia Burney Student Dust Counter, to correct a recently discovered bug in the fault protection system software, (last thing anyone wants is to have the spacecraft go into safe mode at closest approach), and to upload instructions to run the spacecraft through early January. Telemetry shows that New Horizons is in very good health and almost exactly on its planned course.

Principal Investigator Alan Stern wrote in his last PI’s Perspective notes that the science team will meet in January to discuss which Kuiper Belt Objects they hope to “fly by and reconnoiter after Pluto. Those searches will begin next summer and continue through 2011 and 2012. Hopefully, they’ll net us four to 10 potential targets.”

Pluto Fact Sheet

The following Pluto fact sheet is based on NASA’s excellent planetary fact sheets. Pluto is no longer a planet, but a dwarf planet.

Mass: 0.0125 x 1024 kg
Volume: 0.715 x 1010 km3
Average radius: 1,195 km
Average diameter: 2,390 km
Mean density: 1.750 g/cm3
Escape velocity: 1.2 km/s
Surface gravity: 0.58 m/s2
Natural satellites: 3
Rings? – No
Semimajor axis: 5,906,380,000 km
Orbit period: 90,465 days
Perihelion: 4,436,820,000 km
Aphelion: 7,375,930,000 km
Mean orbital velocity: 4.72 km/s
Orbit inclination: 17.16°
Orbit eccentricity: 0.2488
Sidereal rotation period: 153.2928 hours
Length of day: 153.2820 hours
Axial tilt: 122.53°
Discovery: 18 February 1930
Minimum distance from Earth: 4,284,700,000 km
Maximum distance from Earth: 7,528,000,000 km
Maximum apparent diameter from Earth: 0.11 arc seconds
Minimum apparent diameter from Earth: 0.06 arc seconds
Maximum visual magnitude: 13.65

We’ve written many articles about Pluto for Universe Today. Here’s an article about why Pluto isn’t a planet any more, and here’s an article about the distance to Pluto.

If you’d like more info on Pluto, check out Hubblesite’s News Releases about Pluto, and here’s a link to NASA’s Solar System Exploration Guide to Pluto.

We’ve also recorded an entire episode of Astronomy Cast just about Pluto. Listen here, Episode 64: Pluto.

When Was Pluto Discovered?

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Five of the planets are visible with the unaided eye and have been known about for thousands of years. Uranus was discovered in 1781, and Neptune was found in 1846. but when was Pluto discovered?

Pluto was discovered February 18th, 1930 by Clyde Tombaugh at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona. Now that Uranus and Neptune had been discovered, astronomers were certain that there were more planets in the outer Solar System. The director of the Lowell Observatory, Vesto Melvin Slipher, handed the job of finding this next planet, dubbed “Planet X” to the 23-year old Tombaugh.

Tombaugh used a tool called a “blink comparator” to compare two photographs of the night sky. He worked methodically, comparing two photographic plates, looking for any object that jumped from one night to another night. And finally on February 18th, 1930, Tombaugh discovered Pluto; a faint object in the right orbit.

The name for Pluto was chosen by an 11-year old British school girl named Venetia Burney. This continued the tradition of naming planets after Roman gods. Pluto was the Roman god of the underworld, the same as Hades in Greek mythology. It also matched the first initials of Percival Lowell, who the observatory was named after. Lowell died in 1916, and so he never saw the discovery of Pluto.

We have written many articles about the discovery of planets in the Solar System for Universe Today. Here’s an article about when Uranus was discovered, and here’s an article about when Neptune was discovered.

If you’d like more info on Pluto, check out Hubblesite’s News Releases about Pluto, and here’s a link to NASA’s Solar System Exploration Guide to Pluto.

We’ve also recorded a couple of episodes of Astronomy Cast about Pluto. Here’s a good one, Episode 64: Pluto and the Icy Outer Solar System.

Who Discovered Pluto?

Pluto is incredibly faint. You need a powerful backyard telescope to even see it as a dot, so it’s not surprising that Pluto wasn’t discovered until the modern age. Who discovered Pluto? That was the astronomer Clyde Tombaugh, who found Pluto on February 18, 1930.

Tombaugh worked as an astronomer at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona. He was given the task of finding a trans-Neptunian object which was predicted by Percival Lowell and William Pickering – the search for Planet X. Tombaugh used a tool called a blink comparator to study two images of the same region of the sky taken several nights apart. He would display one image and then blink to the second image to see if any objects had moved from night to night.

And so on February 18, 1930, Tombaugh turned up just such an object moving at the right speed to be the unknown Planet X. The name “Pluto” was suggested by Venetia Burney, and 11-year old English school girl. Pluto was the name of the Roman god of the underworld, and Percival Lowell liked it because the first two letters started with PL, after his own initials.

Pluto was considered the 9th planet in the Solar System until 2006, when the International Astronomical Union reclassified Pluto as a dwarf planet, joining Eris and Ceres as the Solar System’s 3 dwarf planets. There are now only 8 planets in the Solar System.

We have written many articles about the discovery of planets in the Solar System. Here’s an article about who discovered Uranus, and here’s an article about who discovered Neptune.

If you’d like more info on Pluto, check out Hubblesite’s News Releases about Pluto, and here’s a link to NASA’s Solar System Exploration Guide to Pluto.

We’ve also recorded several episodes of Astronomy Cast about Pluto. Start here, Episode 64: Pluto and the Icy Outer Solar System.

How Far Away is Pluto From the Sun?

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How far away is Pluto from the Sun? Pluto’s average distance from the Sun is 5.9 billion km or 3.7 billion miles.

But Pluto actually follows an elliptical orbit around the Sun. Sometimes it’s much closer to the Sun, and other times it’s further away. At its closest point, Pluto measures only 4.4 billion km from the Sun. This is close enough that a thin layer of frost evaporates from its surface, becoming a thin atmosphere around the planet. And then as it continues its journey around the Sun, Pluto gets colder again and this atmosphere refreezes onto the planet. It continues to travel out to a distance of 7.4 billion km from the Sun.

Astronomers use another method of measuring distances in the Solar System called the astronomical unit. 1 astronomical unit or AU is the average distance from the Earth to the Sun; approximately 150 million km. So we can use this to describe Pluto’s distance from the Sun. At its closest point, Pluto measures 29.7 AU. And then at its furthest point, Pluto is 49.3 AU.

We have written many articles about Pluto for Universe Today. Here’s an article about why Pluto isn’t a planet any more, and here are some pictures of Pluto.

If you’d like more info on Pluto, check out Hubblesite’s News Releases about Pluto, and here’s a link to NASA’s Solar System Exploration Guide to Pluto.

We’ve also recorded several episodes of Astronomy Cast about Pluto. Listen here, Episode 64: Pluto and the Icy Outer Solar System.

Pluto’s Distance from the Sun

Pluto’s distance from the Sun is 5.9 billion km – the exact number is 5,906,376,272 km. Need that figure in miles? Pluto’s distance from the Sun is 3.67 billion miles.

Keep in mind that this distance is an average. Pluto follows a highly elliptical orbit around the Sun. At the closest point of its orbit, called perihelion, Pluto gets to within 4.44 billion km from the Sun. And then at its most distant point of its orbit, called aphelion, Pluto gets to within 7.38 billion km of the Sun.

Astronomers use another term to measure distance in the Solar System called “astronomical units”. 1 astronomical unit, or AU, is the average distance from the Earth to the Sun – about 150 million km. Pluto’s perihelion is 29.7 AU, and its aphelion is 49.3 AU. Pluto’s average distance, or semi-major axis, is 39.5 AU.

We have written many articles about Pluto for Universe Today. Here’s an article about why Pluto isn’t a planet any more, and here’s an article about methane in Pluto’s atmosphere.

Want more info on Pluto, check out Hubblesite’s News Releases about Pluto, and here’s a link to NASA’s Solar System Exploration Guide to Pluto.

We’ve recorded several episodes of Astronomy Cast about Pluto. Here’s one, Episode 64: Pluto and the Icy Outer Solar System.

How Long Does it Take Pluto to Orbit the Sun?

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Because Pluto orbits much further from the Sun than Earth, it takes much longer to orbit the Sun. In fact, Pluto takes 248 years to orbit the Sun. That’s because Pluto orbits at an average distance of 5.9 billion km from the Sun, while Earth only orbits at 150 million km. In fact, it takes so long for Pluto to orbit that Sun, that the dwarf planet hasn’t even completed a third of an orbit from when it was discovered back in February 18th, 1930.

Pluto has a highly elliptical orbit. Its distance from the Sun varies from 4.4 billion km to 7.4 billion km. And during this orbital period, Pluto goes through a few interesting changes. You might be surprised to learn that Pluto has an atmosphere. When it’s at its closest point to the Sun, Pluto’s atmosphere evaporates from the surface and surrounding the dwarf planet. And then when it gets further away, the atmosphere freezes again, coating the surface in a thin layer.

Pluto was only discovered in 1930 by Clyde W. Tombaugh. Because it takes 248 years to orbit the Sun, Pluto won’t have completed a full orbit until the year 2178.

We have written many articles about Pluto for Universe Today. Here’s an article about why Pluto isn’t a planet any more, and here’s an article about methane discovered in Pluto’s atmosphere.

If you’d like more information on Pluto, check out Hubblesite’s News Releases about Pluto, and here’s a link to NASA’s Solar System Exploration Guide to Pluto.

We’ve also recorded several episodes of Astronomy Cast just about Pluto. Listen here, Episode 64: Pluto and the Icy Outer Solar System.

How Big is Pluto?

Pluto used to be the smallest planet in the Solar System, but now it isn’t a planet any more, thanks to a recent decision from the International Astronomical Union. But now it’s one of the largest dwarf planets, so that’s a good thing. How big is Pluto?

The diameter of Pluto is only 2,390 km across. Just for comparison, that’s about 70% the diameter of the Moon. And it’s a fraction of the size of the Earth; about 18% of the Earth’s diameter.

In terms of volume, Pluto only has 6.39 x 109 km3. That sounds like a huge number, but it’s only 0.59% of the volume of the Earth. In other words, you could put almost 170 objects the size of Pluto inside the Earth.

The mass of Pluto is 1.3 x 1022 kg, which is only 0.2% the mass of the Earth, or 18% the mass of the Moon. Needless to say, Pluto doesn’t have very much mass at all.

The surface area of Pluto is 1.67 x 107 square kilometers. That’s only 3.3% the surface area of Earth, and about the same surface area as Russia.

If you could stand on the surface of Pluto, you would experience only 6.7% the gravity you enjoy on Earth.

We have written many article about Pluto for Universe Today. Here’s an article that explains why Pluto isn’t a planet any more, and here are some interesting facts about Pluto.

Want more information on Pluto? Here’s Hubblesite’s News Releases about Pluto, and here’s a link to NASA’s Solar System Exploration Guide to Pluto.

We’ve recorded an entire episode of Astronomy Cast about Pluto and the rest of the icy outer Solar System. You can find it here.

Mythology of the Planets

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Thousands of years ago, ancient civilizations turned to the heavens, marveling at their wonders. These ancient people worshipped various gods and often linked their gods with planets in the sky, which they considered to be “wandering stars.”

Mercury gets its name from the winged messenger of the gods. He was also the god of thievery, commerce, and travel. Most likely, the planet got its name from the rate at which it spins.

Venus was the Roman goddess of love and beauty, so it is a fitting name for this brightly shining planet. The only objects in our Solar System brighter than Venus are the Sun and the Moon. Ancient civilizations thought that Venus was two different objects – the Morning Star and the Evening Star. Other civilizations have also associated the planet with love. The Babylonians called the planet Ishtar after their goddess of womanhood and love.

Earth is the only planet not named after a Roman god or goddess, but it is associated with the goddess Terra Mater (Gaea to the Greeks). In mythology, she was the first goddess on Earth and the mother of Uranus. The name Earth comes from Old English and Germanic. It is derived from “eor(th)e” and “ertha,” which mean “ground.” Other civilizations all over the world also developed terms for our planet.

Mars is named after the Roman god of war. The planet got its name from the fact that it is the color of blood.  Other civilizations also named the planets for its red color.

Jupiter was the Roman king of the gods. Considering that Jupiter is the largest planet in our Solar System, it makes sense that the planet was named after the most important god.

Saturn was named after the Roman god of agriculture and harvest. While the planet may have gotten its name from its golden color, like a field of wheat, it also had to do with its position in the sky. According to mythology, the god Saturn stole the position of king of the gods from his father Uranus. The throne was then stolen by Jupiter.

Uranus was not discovered until the 1800’s, but the astronomers in that time period continued the tradition of naming planets after Roman gods. In mythology, Uranus was the father of Saturn and was at one time the king of the gods.

While Neptune almost ended up being named after one of the astronomers credited with discovering it – Verrier – that was greatly disputed, so it was named after the god of the sea. The name was probably inspired by its blue color.

Pluto is no longer a planet, but it used to be. The dark, cold, former planet was named after the god of the underworld. The first two letters of Pluto are also the initials of the man who predicted  its existence, Percival Lowell.

Universe Today has articles on names of the planets and all the planets.

For more information on the planets check out all about the planets and mythology of the planets.

Astronomy Cast has episodes on all the planets including Saturn.

Pluto’s Moons, Nix and Hydra, may have been Adopted

 

How many moons does Pluto have? The mini-moons of Pluto, Nix and Hydra, were discovered in 2005 (but named in 2006) during an observation campaign by the Hubble Space Telescope. The discovery of these mini-moons increase the number of natural satellites orbiting Pluto to three (including larger moon Charon). But where did these satellites come from? The current accepted theory on the formation on the large moon, Charon, is much like the theory supporting the creation of Earth’s Moon. It is thought that a large impact between two Large Kuiper Belt Objects chipped Charon away from a proto-Pluto, putting the chunk of Pluto mass into orbit. Over the years, tidal forces slowed the pair and Charon was allowed to settle into its present-day orbit. Recent theory suggests that Nix and Hydra are a by product of this collision, merely shattered fragments of the huge impact. But there are problems with this idea. Could Nix and Hydra have come from somewhere other than the Pluto-Charon impact?

The orbits of Plutos moons, Charon, Nix and Hydra (credit: NASA)
The small moons that orbit the Large Kuiper Belt Object (formerly classified as a planet) can be found about 48,700 kilometers and 64,800 kilometers from the surface of Pluto. The closest moon is called Nix and the farthest, Hydra. Nix has an orbital resonance of 4:1 with Charons orbit and the larger moon Hydra has a resonance of 6:1 (i.e. Nix will orbit Pluto once for every four of Charons orbits; Hydra will orbit Pluto once for every six of Charons orbits).

The reasons behind these mini-moon orbits are only just beginning to be understood, but it is known that their resonances with Charons orbit is rooted way back during the Pluto-system evolution. If we assume Hydra and Nix were formed from a massive Kuiper Belt Object collision, the easiest explanation is to assume they are whole fragments from the impact caught in the gravity of the Pluto-Charon system. However, due to the highly eccentric orbits that would have resulted from this collision, it is not possible that the two little moons could have evolved into a near-circular orbit, in near-corotational resonance with Charon.

So, could it be possible that the moons may have formed from the dust and debris resulting from the initial collision? If there was enough material produced, and if the material collided frequently, then perhaps Nix and Hydra were born from a cold disk of debris (rather than being whole pieces of rock), eventually coalescing and forming sizeable rocky moons. As there may have been a disk of debris, collisions with the orbiting Nix and Hydra would have also reduced any eccentricity in their orbits.

But there is a big problem with this theory. From impact simulations, the post-impact disk of debris surrounding Pluto would have been very compact. The disk could not have reached as far as the present-day orbits of the moons.

One more theory suggests that perhaps the moons were created in a post-impact disk, but very close to Pluto, and then through gravitational interactions with Charon, the orbits of Nix and Hydra were pulled outward, allowing them to orbit far from the Pluto-Charon post-impact disk. According to recent computer simulations, this doesn’t seem to be possible either.

To find an answer, work by Yoram Lithwick and Yanqin Wu (University of Toronto) suggest we must look beyond the Pluto-Charon system for a source of material for Nix and Hydra. From simulations, the above theories on the creation of the small moons being started by material ejected from a large collision between two Large Kuiper Belt Objects (creating Pluto and Charon) are extremely problematic. They do not correctly answer how the highly eccentric orbits Nix and Hydra would have from a collision could evolve into the near-circular ones they have today.

Lithwick and Wu go on to say that the circular, corotational resonant orbits of the two moons could be created from a Plutocentric disk of small bits of rock scooped up during Pluto’s orbit around the Sun. Therefore Nix and Hydra may have been formed from the rocky debris left over from the development of the Solar System, and not from a collision event creating Charon. This may hold true for the countless other Kuiper Belt Objects in orbit in the far reaches of the Solar System, no impact is necessary for the creation of the tiny moons now thought to be their satellites.

It is hoped that the New Horizons mission (launched January 21st, 2006) to the far reaches of the Solar System will reveal some of the questions that remain unanswered in the depths of our mysterious Kuiper Belt. Hopefully we will also find out whether Nix and Hydra are children of Pluto and Charon… or whether they were adopted.

Source: arXiv