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NASA Space

With New Horizons Spacecraft a Year Away, What We Know About Pluto 128

Posted by samzenpus
from the where-the-mi-go-and-the-terran-federation-play dept.
An anonymous reader writes In one year, NASA's New Horizons spacecraft will reach Pluto after over 8 years of travel. "Not only did we choose the date, by the way, we chose the hour and the minute. And we're on track," says Alan Stern, the principal investigator for NASA's Pluto-Kuiper Belt Mission. As the New Horizons spacecraft gets closer to Pluto, we will begin getting the clearest images we've ever gotten. "A great deal of planning went into this mission. But in case you're wondering, the New Horizons team did not plan for Pluto to be downgraded to a dwarf planet in the same year as the launch. That didn't change anything for Alan Stern. Some planetary scientists still dispute Pluto's planet status, and Stern says he'll always think of Pluto as a planet. Either way, it's a distant realm ripe for exploration. Scientists don't know exactly what they will see there. And that's the exciting part. 'When we first sent missions to Jupiter, no one expected to find moons that would have active volcanoes. And I could go down a long list of how often I've been surprised by the richness of nature,' Stern says."
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With New Horizons Spacecraft a Year Away, What We Know About Pluto

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  • by sandbagger (654585) on Monday July 14, 2014 @11:29AM (#47448905)

    Who wants to fight?

    • by Cardoor (3488091)
      wish i had some mod points right now.. cracked me up.. thanks!
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by bunratty (545641)
      It is what it is, no matter what you call it.
    • by Anonymous Coward on Monday July 14, 2014 @12:01PM (#47449167)

      You know, it's funny, as someone who grew up with nine planets including Pluto, I never understood this desire to keep Pluto a planet. Even an elementary school student could see it was a bit of an oddball compared to the other eight, with a highly eccentric and tilted orbit, a dimunitive size, and recurring announcements every few years of possible discovery of other tiny planet like things out in a similarly distant orbit. I was almost relieved when it was got a new categorization. Unless you're somehow tied to the idea of "nine" as being a special number for our count of planets, but even then, discovering new planets would have changed that number anyway, just in an upwards direction.

      But either way, sending a probe to Pluto is just as exciting, now matter what Pluto's classification. I think it would be at least as amazing if we sent one to Eris, or even a random asteroid.

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by Solandri (704621)

        I never understood this desire to keep Pluto a planet. Even an elementary school student could see it was a bit of an oddball compared to the other eight, with a highly eccentric and tilted orbit, a dimunitive size, and recurring announcements every few years of possible discovery of other tiny planet like things out in a similarly distant orbit.

        Size is not really the point. Pluto (2300 km radius) is almost the same size as Mercury (2440 km). Both are smaller than the moons Ganymede (2634 km) and Titan

        • by Anonymous Coward on Monday July 14, 2014 @02:05PM (#47450067)

          You must have a really out-of-date source for your sizes. Mercury is 2440 km, you got that correct. Pluto is a less-than-half 1184 km. 5 moons, including our own, are larger than Pluto and smaller than Mercury.

          Size is most definitely one of the points here.

          • Mass is a big point. Mercury is very dense and quite a bit more massive than Ganymede and Titan and all the other moons in our solar system. Mercury is 3.3x10^23 kg, while the most massive moon, Ganymede, is only 1.48x10^23, less than half of Mercury's mass.
      • ... [pluto] was a bit of an oddball compared to the other eight, with a highly eccentric and tilted orbit, a diminutive size.

        Though there's no absolute rules against a planet having those characteristics. Perhaps a planet caught by, not formed within, the system might match some/all of those, etc...

        I can see the desire for have more specific names for different types of things, but I can also see the appeal in keeping things simple.

      • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

        by Anonymous Coward

        I think it would be at least as amazing if we sent one to Eris, or even a random asteroid.

        Good news! The Dawn probe [wikipedia.org] recently did a flyby of Vesta [wikipedia.org] on its way to Ceres [wikipedia.org].

      • by k6mfw (1182893)
        I guess if you're old enough to remember when the world was only two pieces (US and USSR along each their allied countries), Pluto was a planet and many think it still is. At least for me it still seems like a planet. Though that's for the astronomers to argue it out.

        I believe we are fortunate that money and effort was devoted to New Horizons to examine Pluto. Imagine what the surface is like, what would the sun look like at Pluto? Yes, much smaller than here on earth but kind of fun to imagine.

    • If it orbits the freakin' star of our system, it is a godamn planet.

    • Gosh Mickey! I gained a few pounds and all, but no need to call me a planet.

    • "Planet" is NOT Boolean. There is no clear-but boundary and all attempts to draw one depend on too many arbitrary features like hardness of crust, percentage of metals, etc. Nobody wants to use size alone because there are really big moons and asteroids also, and some feel that mass should be used instead of size.

      So, let's start debating percentages. "It's 60% planet! No it's 35% planet, your fat mama is 60% planet!..."

    • As I commented years ago [dwheeler.com], the worst problem with the current IAU definition of "planet" is a practical one: we can't practically use it for objects orbiting other stars.

      We are too far away to observe small objects around other stars, and I think we will always be able to detect larger objects but not smaller ones in many faraway orbits. So when we detect an object in another galaxy with the mass of Jupiter, and it’s orbiting a star, is it a planet? Well, under this current definition we don’t

      • by itzly (3699663)

        And that is a real problem

        In what practical way has this ever been a problem ?

        • The practical problem is a difficulty of communication. The purpose of words is to help us communicate. If we have no word for a common idea we want to express, then we usually create a new word or phrase.

          Let's say we observe an object, with mass less than a star, that is orbiting a star other than our Sun. What, exactly, do you call it? Under the IAU rules, you cannot call it a planet, because we generally cannot know if it has cleared its orbit. The standard solution in English is to call it a "pl

          • by Anonymous Coward

            What, exactly, do you call it?

            An exoplanet. This has been de facto dealt with for some time now, and there isn't any ambiguity or struggling with communication in journal articles on the issue. And that is pretty much the only place that IAU rules really matter anyway.

    • by Talderas (1212466) on Monday July 14, 2014 @03:10PM (#47450523)

      Even better.

      New Horizons was launched on January 19, 2006 to the planet Pluto. Pluto was demoted to dwarf planet on August 26, 2006.

      New Horizons lost its destination within a year as the planet Pluto no longer exists.

    • by dissy (172727)

      I don't see how having hundreds of thousands of planets in our solar system is a useful construct of the term "planet"
      Nor do I see having $random number of planets being useful either, nor being even a "definition" of a word at that.

      Since those are the only two logical conclusions that can result from such a statement as "pluto is a planet" - would you mind explaining your reasoning?

    • <dramatic music>New Horizons set out on an epic journey of <Carl Sagan voice>millions and millions</Carl Sagan voice> of miles to the most distant, coldest parts of the solar system. Its 5, er, 8 year mission, to explore the last unexplored and most difficult to reach Planet of them all, Pluto, and whatever planets may be discovered beyond Pluto.</dramatic music>

      Suddenly, in 2006 Pluto was downgraded to dwarf planet status, and all the Planets were now explored.

      Fight? What for

    • This video explains the situation very effectively.
      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v... [youtube.com]

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday July 14, 2014 @11:37AM (#47448973)

    Right now the astronomers on the ground are rehearsing everything about the encounter, because it takes four hours for any signal to reach New Horizons and even longer to transmit anything at 1kb/s. The entire Pluto flyby will be automated: they do not have any control over what the spacecraft will see or be able to focus on at the moment of its closest approach to Pluto. The sheer number of things that have to happen at precisely the right time on this mission is insane. It's a good thing they've had a decade to pepare for this.

    • by tomhath (637240)
      Yup, it's mind boggling to think of a mission that takes so long. Here's hoping they don't discover a moon orbiting Pluto at about 6000 miles, or forget to take the lens cap off.
      • by Tablizer (95088)

        Here's hoping they don't discover a moon orbiting Pluto at about 6000 miles, or forget to take the lens cap off.

        My understanding is that the probe will fly right through Charon's orbit when in Pluto's orbital plane to reduce the risk of collision with small moons or ring-like bits. Charon would likely clear out anything in the same orbit. (Outside of the "ratio" spots like 1/3 or 1/2 ahead or behind, which are avoided.)

        In case there is an undiscovered moon of Pluto in another orbit, I wonder if there is not

    • by Gothmolly (148874)

      It takes 4 hours for any signal to reach Pluto regardless of bitrate. Light only has 1 speed.

      • It takes 4 hours for any signal to reach Pluto regardless of bitrate. Light only has 1 speed.

        Maybe in your universe. In my universe, the speed of light varies with the medium.

      • by itzly (3699663)
        It takes 4 hours for the first bit. It takes 4 hours + size/bitrate for the last bit.
      • by Tablizer (95088)

        I see you've never had TimeWarner.

  • What do they expect to find on such a distant clump of rock and why is it they thought it to be a good investment to go snap a few slefies around it rather then use that money to go where things really ought to be interesting like Io and Europa?

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Here's a hint: no one's been there yet.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      A better understanding of the early formation of the Solar system perhaps? Or you know, instead of having someone hold your dick for you, you could take the initiative and learn about what they intend to learn yourself.

      Instead you post on /. and expose what a fucking moron Luddite that you are.

    • by neilo_1701D (2765337) on Monday July 14, 2014 @11:54AM (#47449111)

      What do they expect to find on such a distant clump of rock and why is it they thought it to be a good investment to go snap a few slefies around it rather then use that money to go where things really ought to be interesting like Io and Europa?

      Well, it's a pretty cheap mission at $650 million over 15 years.

      But the most exciting thing about the mission is the clues it gives to the early history of the solar system.

      You're right: Europa and Io are very interesting places to visit, especially considering the possibility for life there, and no doubt those missions are being planned. But for now, we're a year out from Pluto and about to discover what we're yet to discover.

      • by Anonymous Coward

        Well, it's a pretty cheap mission at $650 million over 15 years.

        *siiiggghhhh*

        It's so frustrating that I hear people bitch about costs like that (not talking about the parent, of course) and yet, are more than happy for the government to spend trillions and countless lives on idiotic wars - which end up causing even more hostilities in the future.

        If we, the US of A, concentrated our money, brains, and gumption on science and space exploration, not only would we be reaping the benefits of that technology, but we wouldn't be paying for the bad karma from all the decades of

      • Right now they are frantically searching for a second Kuiper Belt target within the range of the nuclear generator lifetime (+5 years?). But they have not found one yet. They would hope to set the course shortly after leaving Pluto.
        • They would hope to set the course shortly after leaving Pluto.

          They would hope to set course shortly before reaching Pluto. A gravity assist from Pluto will significantly increase the size of course change that could be made.

          • by itzly (3699663)
            Gravity from Pluto is very small, and the trajectory has already been optimized for the primary mission, so there's not a lot of room for changing it.
    • Perhaps because they already sent one probe to Jupiter, and another is en-route.

      Pluto is already sad and dejected from being demoted from planetary status. Must you compound its misery by having all the probes crowd around the "popular" planets like paparazzi?
    • by clovis (4684) on Monday July 14, 2014 @12:03PM (#47449189)

      What do they expect to find on such a distant clump of rock and why is it they thought it to be a good investment to go snap a few slefies around it rather then use that money to go where things really ought to be interesting like Io and Europa?

      Please return your 4-digit ID.

      • by hawkfish (8978)

        What do they expect to find on such a distant clump of rock and why is it they thought it to be a good investment to go snap a few slefies around it rather then use that money to go where things really ought to be interesting like Io and Europa?

        Please return your 4-digit ID.

        Second the motion.

    • by Rolgar (556636) on Monday July 14, 2014 @12:16PM (#47449279)

      I think this was a more time sensitive mission, because Pluto is moving farther from the sun and scientists warned [discovery.com] (rightly or wrongly) that it was about to freeze, and they had a window to use a gravity assist from Jupiter to get the probe there much sooner, and there was also an earlier mission snowballed.

      On the other hand, Io and Europa aren't going to be any different in 5 years than they would have been a few years ago when the probe would have reached those destinations, so those missions were not as high priority than the potential impact of Pluto's orbit that they weren't sure of when they green-lighted this mission 13 years ago.

      • by Rolgar (556636)

        Not snowballed, mothballed, egads.

      • by Anonymous Coward

        There's actually an even dumber reason than that.

        The RTG on New Horizons [wikipedia.org] was a spare from Cassini. It was very much "use it or lose it" as finding more plutonium for a RTG is getting more difficult every day.

        • There's actually an even dumber reason than that.

          The RTG on New Horizons [wikipedia.org] was a spare from Cassini. It was very much "use it or lose it" as finding more plutonium for a RTG is getting more difficult every day.

          Oh c'mon, you're trying to tell me that *nobody* at NASA had the common sense to call a few Libyan nationalists and order some used pinball machine parts off of Amazon?

      • by Anonymous Coward

        Forgot about that, Due to its orbit its "summer" only occurs for a few decades every ~200 Years, the height of its "summer" (closest point to the sun) was in 1990. Observing it during winter is relatively easy, but observing it during summer is a little more time sensitive and you've got a long wait between opportunities.

    • by Lumpy (12016)

      Well if theories are correct, Pluto's moon is not actually a moon but instead is a Mass relay that is just encrusted in ice.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Among other things, Sky and Telescope says one thing they'll look for is if Pluto's atmosphere matches predictive models - it goes so far to and away from the Sun that it could be possible that the atmosphere undergoes collapse. And also, can evidence be found if Charon has under-ice water akin to Europa?

      Finally, Pluto is just a flyby.... New Horizons also will try to study a Kuiper Belt Object, and I find it interesting the mission was launched without a target - their team is studying Hubble images.

    • by wbr1 (2538558)
      The bottom line is that we know far more about Uranus than Pluto. Even given the wealth of knowledge and enjoyment Uranus has given generations of scientists and philosophers, the decision was made to explore strange (no not new worlds, just strange.) I think in part this is due to the fact that Uranus is massive and gassy, but what do I know?
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      What do they expect to find on such a distant clump of rock and why is it they thought it to be a good investment to go snap a few slefies around it rather then use that money to go where things really ought to be interesting like Io and Europa?

      Because every time we go there, WE FIND OUT SOMETHING.

      We find something we HAD NO IDEA was happening.
      Look at Io for the first example from the voyager series.

      And every time we go again, we bring commentators like you with us.
      That part is predictable.

      This time Europa was more expensive than our last look at pluto's atmosphere before it freezes, so.. pluto is is.

    • by Hamsterdan (815291) on Monday July 14, 2014 @03:05PM (#47450483)

      Besides, we were warned Europa is off limits

  • Scientists will never send probes to Uranus.

  • by DarthVain (724186) on Monday July 14, 2014 @02:16PM (#47450129)

    I can't wait until Pluto is reclassified again, this time as a derelict alien spacecraft orbiting at the edge of our solar system.

  • From TFA:
    "Pluto’s surface temperature is a chilly -380 degrees Fahrenheit. "

    Can we use useful units please?

    That's 44.2611 Kelvin.

  • [ ] a planet
    [ ] a plutoid
    [ ] a bitch

    Say "what" one more goddamned time...

  • As it leaves the Pluto system, New Horizons will burn its rockets and head toward a new destination. The team plans to send it to another Kuiper belt object, though exactly which one has not yet been decided. Hubble is right now searching for candidates...

    That seems a waste of Hubble's precious time. Why can't Earth-based telescopes do that? You don't really need resolution to find moving specs, just lots of light-gathering ability, which Earth scopes can do better than Hubble.

    Typically a scope takes an ima

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Most ground-based telescopes don't have the ability to see things below magnitude 28 [wikipedia.org]. Most KBOs are much darker than that. The Hubble can go down to magnitude 32. And actually as a matter of fact I believe one of the New Horizons KBO search team is currently at Mauna Kea Observatory, pushing the limits of adaptive optics in this area.

      • by Tablizer (95088)

        What limits earth scopes to 28? Light pollution? Haze?

        True, a point source will be blurred on Earth compared to in space, but if you have a big enough lens, it will be a bright blur.

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