Pluto is Getting Stranger by the Minute

Pluto

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The New Horizons spacecraft is now just a few days from reaching Pluto. After traveling for 9 years, it is already sending back amazing close-ups.

It will zoom past that tiny Dwarf Planet on Tuesday morning, July 14, with its closest approach a mere one Earth width above the freezing surface. But it will be so frantically busy taking pictures, it won't get around to sending us the best close-ups until a day later—Wednesday.


photo credit: Artist’s concept of NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft as it passes Pluto and Pluto’s largest moon, Charon, in July 2015. (Credit: NASA/JHU APL/SwRI/Steve Gribben)

What do you need to know about Pluto?

  • It's tiny: only 1400 miles wide – much smaller than our moon.
  • Pluto is really a double object. Pluto and Charon, with a mere two-to-one size difference. 
  • Make sure you pronounce its moon Karen, like the feminine name. The pair orbit around an empty piece of space between them once a week.  Several other even smaller moons are there too, with weird names like Nyx.
  • Pluto takes a quarter of a millennium to orbit the Sun. During its slow “year,” its orbit is so tilted that it can appear in odd places in the sky. For example, starting in 2060, it will spend more than a half century in the constellation of Cetus the Whale. So don't be surprised if at astrology gatherings someone says odd things like, “My Pluto's in Cetus.”

On Tuesday morning (the 14th), the New Horizons craft cannot stop and orbit Pluto. Instead it will skim closely by, traveling at 8 miles per second, giving its cameras just a half-hour window of close approach before it continues onward, never to return.

On Pluto's hemisphere that won't be facing those close-up cameras, the approach pictures already show a bizarre series of four giant evenly-spaced circular black spots, each a few hundred miles wide. They resemble nothing else in the known universe.

New color images from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft show two very different faces of the mysterious dwarf planet, one with a series of intriguing spots along the equator that are evenly spaced. (Credit: NASA/New Horizons/LORRI/Ralph)

So, fortunately, unlike the smudgy, blurry lack of details that Voyager 2 showed on Neptune in 1989, or the blank aqua overcast seen on Uranus in 1986, here finally is an outer planet where our fly-by has lots of detail to observe.

As for whether it's really a planetlet's get into that next week. Meantime, like Mickey, we can all finally say, “Hello Pluto.”

~ By  Bob Berman

About This Blog

Welcome to “This Week’s Amazing Sky,” the Almanac’s blog on stargazing and astronomy. Wondering which bright objects you’re seeing in the night sky? Want to learn about a breathtaking sight coming up? Bob Berman, longtime and famous astronomer for The Old Farmer’s Almanac, will help bring alive the wonders of our universe. From the beautiful stars and planets to magical auroras and eclipses, we’ll cover everything under the Sun (and Moon)!

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In my early days in

In my early days in electronics I worked on a deep space project called Voyager.I tested some of the electronics that went into the system.This is all interesting with all the changes in electronics and the technology that has gone into this project.I can't wait to see some of the pictures that will come out as it passes by.

That's very cool, Roger. The

That's very cool, Roger. The two Voyagers, launched in 1977, were probably them ost prolific and successful spacecraft in human history. I worried about the radios in Voyager 2, which developed problems soon after launch, but it held up!

I worked on the deep space

I worked on the deep space project Voyager.I tested the electronics that went into the system.So this is very interesting with how the electronics and technology has changed since Voyager.

I worked on the deep space

I worked on the deep space project Voyager.I tested the electronics that went into the system.So this is very interesting with how the electronics and technology has changed since Voyager.

OMG! THAT'S BOB BERMAN FROM

OMG! THAT'S BOB BERMAN FROM SLOOH.COM!!! Thanks for all the awesome information and shows! Really nice data coming from all the space exploration. Can't wait for more pics of li'l Pluto! Keep up the great work NASA!!!

So what's beyond Pluto? When

So what's beyond Pluto? When the New Horizons zooms along catching glimpses of alien worlds will the Feds keep it a secret from the general poplulation? How long can it go before it runs out of fuel?

Beyond Pluto is the Kuiper

Beyond Pluto is the Kuiper belt of innumerable icy bodies, of which Pluto seems the largest, barely. As for your other Qs, it needs no fuel for travel, just for aiming cameras and such, and as for aliens, NASA would never keep it a secret. They couldn't. Planetary researchers love attention, love relealing discoveries, and love blabbering. If it ever happened, you'd know it the same day.

So since Pluto and Charon

So since Pluto and Charon orbit each other is why they don't consider Pluto to be a planet? How will it be that there will be more planets if the rule is changed? What is Eris?

If a celestial body is big

If a celestial body is big enough to be round, but doesn't meet the criteria of a "major planet" then it's a dwarf planet, like Ceres, Pluto, and, yes, Eris. Maybe others. Eris is farther out than Pluto, a bit heavier, but also a tad smaller.

Interesting! I hope that

Interesting! I hope that everyone has a nice week.

I am so thrilled! I've been

I am so thrilled! I've been fascinated by astronomy since I was a little girl. So this is almost a dream come true, to FINALLY get to see good images of Pluto.

And THANK YOU! It's about time SOMEONE realized that Charon is NOT pronounced "Sharon". Why can't anyone at NASA get it right? Thank you for correcting this glaring oversight.

Maybe this will be the impetus the astronomers need to reverse their idiotic decision. Pluto IS and will ALWAYS be a planet.

Well said! It's interesting

Well said! It's interesting to see how so many people feel strongly about Pluto's planet status. Just remember, if Pluto is ever restored as a "major planet" we will have to have a bunch of other new planets added at the same time, since objects like Eris wil then automatically qualify.

Amazing can hardly wait for

Amazing can hardly wait for more pictures

Will New Horizons continue to

Will New Horizons continue to take pictures and send them back after passing Pluto?

Yes, at first during this

Yes, at first during this flyby period. But at 8 miles per second, the craft will quickly get so far away that images will soon get anticlimactic compared the the close-ups. Hopefully the craft will still be operational during visits to MORE  Kuiper belt bodies.

With a little luck new

With a little luck new Horizons can flyby one or two other Kuiper belt objects, each small and probably icy, and give us our first close-up views of them. 

That is awesome !!!

That is awesome !!!

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