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NASA Space

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

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 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 [] (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 Solandri ( 704621 ) on Monday July 14, 2014 @01:38PM (#47449863)

    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 (2575 km), while Callisto (2408 km) falls right in between them.

    People just need to get over the notion that a "planet" is somehow better or higher ranking or more important than a "moon" or "Kuiper belt object" / whatever. Those are not hierarchical terms. They are just definitions of what a body's orbit is like, and the effect its gravity has on other nearby objects (or vice versa). Nailing down a static definition of "planet" was also important for not having to rewrite school science textbooks every couple years.

  • by thrich81 ( 1357561 ) on Monday July 14, 2014 @06:57PM (#47452181)

    I dislike replying to an AC, but this sentiment is common enough that I will. Let's examine " You were nowhere before WW2" -- ever heard of Robert Goddard, the American who built and launched the first liquid fueled rocket in 1926? The German rocket programs were largely independent of Goddard's work but following is a quote by Wernher von Braun himself in 1963, "His rockets ... may have been rather crude by present-day standards, but they blazed the trail and incorporated many features used in our most modern rockets and space vehicles." And another quote from von Braun in the same Wikipedia bio of Goddard, "Goddard's experiments in liquid fuel saved us years of work, and enabled us to perfect the V-2 years before it would have been possible." I will not say that the US (and the Soviet Union) didn't get big advances from the German rocket program, but neither country was "nowhere before WW II." Check out Konstantin Tsiolkovsky on the Russian side.

Doubt isn't the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith. - Paul Tillich, German theologian and historian