From The New York Times’ Out There series, get a deeper understanding of the New Horizons spacecraft‘s mission, history, and July 14, 2015 flyby of Pluto, a historic and illuminating glance at the last of our solar system’s known worlds.
Ever since a young astronomer named Clyde W. Tombaugh discovered Pluto 85 years ago, it has been little more than a dot in the night sky. This first ever spacecraft visit will bring Pluto into focus, illuminating mysterious dark regions on its surface and possibly erupting ice volcanoes. Weather patterns could swirl in Pluto’s thin atmosphere of nitrogen and methane, with haze and snowfall…
While Pluto was once thought to be a singular strange body in an otherwise dull, empty expanse of space, it is now the archetype of what astronomers call the “third zone” of the solar system. Beyond the rocky planets like Earth and the gas giants like Jupiter, there appear to be millions of icy worlds circling the sun in what is known as the Kuiper belt, named after Gerard Kuiper, an astronomer who had suggested that some comets originated from the outskirts of the solar system.
The spacecraft’s closest approach to Pluto will be at 11:49:57 UTC on July 14, 2015. Follow the event at pluto.jhuapl.edu.
Update from ScienceMag.org: “NASA’s New Horizons team says the debate is over: Pluto is the largest of the worlds that patrol the fringe of the solar system.”