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Why we must all Pluto; As probe finally reaches the former planet deep in space...


Most pictures taken from a range of 476,000 miles could not be called closeups. But this spectacular image of Pluto is the most detailed ever seen of the dwarf planet on the edge of our solar system.

When you bear in mind that Pluto is 2.66 billion miles away from the Earth at its closest, then the New Horizons probe that took the picture was 99.9% of the way there at the time.

It was published yesterday just as the probe, launched in January 2006, closed the gap to almost nothing in astronomical terms and passed within 7,800 miles of Pluto's surface. Pictures from this close encounter are expected to be released by Nasa today.

The unmanned New Horizons - the fastest ever spacecraft - sped past Pluto at more than 30,000mph at 12.49pm yesterday.

It got there just one minute earlier than anticipated at its launch nine years ago, and hit a target "window" in space measuring 36 x 57 miles - compared by Nasa to landing a jetliner on a tennis ball.

This first image, which took 41/2 hours to beam down at the speed of light to Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland, USA, reveals dark and light patches on Pluto's surface, with a heart shape on one side.

"It should be a day of incredible pride," said Nasa's chief administrator, Charlie Bolden.

He and his team are playing a At its closest Pluto is 2.66bn miles from Earth high-stakes game with their [euro]639million probe. Previous meteor strikes on Pluto's moons have left trails of dust fragments and it would take a speck no bigger than a grain of rice to destroy the spacecraft.

"I haven't had much sleep," said Alice Bowman, mission operations manager. "We always talk about the spacecraft being like a child or teenager."

If it escapes unscathed, New Horizons is on course to reveal secrets from the last unexplored part of our solar system.

Nasa says information about Pluto's five known moons - Charon, New Horizons got within 7,800 miles at 12.49 yesterday Hydra, Nix, Styx and Kerberos - and data on the distant and mysterious Kuiper Belt will tell us learn more about how the system was formed.

The solar system has three classes of planet. "Terrestrial" includes Earth and Mars, "giant" encompasses Jupiter, Saturn and Neptune, and "third zone" includes Pluto, which was controversially downgraded from full planetary status in August 2006, seven months after the probe was launched.

These latter icy bodies are thought to consist of the same material that condensed to form other planets, but their growth was arrested early in the history of the solar system. So the more we learn about Pluto, the more we can learn about the history of our own planet.

After its launch from Cape Canaveral in Florida, New Horizons performed a flyby of Jupiter in February 2007 to pick up a gravitational "slingshot" which shortened its cruise time by three years.

The probe is described as the size of a washing machine with a radio dish about the size of a person on top and other protuberances. Its The flypast took place at a speed of 30,000mph total dimensions are 0.7m x 2.1m x 2.7m and it is packed with seven pieces of high-tech equipment, some named after people.

Among the two most useful are Ralph and Alice, named after characters from the 1950s' US TV show The Honeymooners.

Ralph picks up infrared images and shows the planet in colour and with thermal maps. Alice is an ultraviolet imaging spectrometer which analyses the composition and structure of Pluto's atmosphere.

Other equipment measures temperature, solar wind, plasma ions and space dust.

A little surprisingly, the two cameras on board are not cutting-edge technology from 2006 but older equipment of proven reliability.

"The cameras represent mature technology of 15 years ago," said Nasa's Jeff Moore.

"If you're going to launch a spacecraft that's going to fly over three billion miles away from the Earth and it's going to take 10 years to get there, you want to make sure that what you're sending there is completely reliable.

"We used cameras not too different from what you can buy at This image took 41/2 hours to reach us at light spped a camera store or in the back of your telephone."

Also on board are the ashes of astronomer Clyde Tombaugh, who discovered Pluto in February 1930 from a telescope in Flagstaff, Arizona. He died in 1997 aged 90.

John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for Nasa's Science Mission Directorate in Washington, said: "Pluto was discovered just 85 years ago by a farmer's son from Kansas.

"Today, science takes a great leap observing the Pluto system up close and flying into a new frontier that will help us better understand the origins of the solar system."

The mission may also help restore The [euro]639m probe could be wrecked by one dust speck Pluto to its previous status, which was lost thanks to earlier studies which said its diameter was only 1,430 miles, or two-thirds the size of the Earth's moon.

But scientists have already used photos from New Horizons to determine that it is larger than previously thought. This argument looks set to rage on, but it's what the probe reveals about the surface that is most interesting.

Initial photos taken from a million miles away revealed evidence of cliffs, craters and chasms larger than the Earth's Grand Canyon, while early data reveals gas, especially nitrogen, is escaping from its atmosphere, which means it has an ice cap.

But this is just the beginning.

The probe will be collecting so much information that it will take 16 months to send back.

After waiting a decade for yesterday's flypast, a little longer probably won't hurt...


MISSION New Horizons
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Title Annotation:Editorial
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Jul 15, 2015
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