Pluto’s First Close Up

In case you haven’t heard (or have been living under a rock for the past few weeks) the New Horizons probe just made its first flyby of Pluto, America’s favorite demoted planet. It sent out preliminary pictures earlier this month, which showed everything from spots, to a strange whale-shaped formation, with clearer pictures coming more often as we got closer and closer.

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A picture of Charon—Pluto’s moon—and the dwarf planet itself. From NASA’s New Horizon’s page.

When the high quality pics finally came in, there was somewhat of a surprise for those of us who learned Pluto as the ninth planet: it was not, in fact, purple. Or blue, or whatever cool color your elementary school planetary charts told you it was. It’s less of a small blue/purple celestial body as it is a tannish-almost-yellow one. Add in the fact that these are enhanced colors to better show the topography of the planets and basically all of elementary school becomes a lie. But take heart, there are a lot of other cool things we now know about Pluto thanks to the New Horizons.

Like: Pluto is bigger than we thought. Not just bigger than our idea of it, but Pluto even seems to be a little bit larger than Eris, the recently discovered dwarf planet (discovered in 2005) that put its planet status into question. The thought was, Eris was larger than Pluto, and if a dwarf planet was larger than an actual planet, where did that leave Pluto’s designation?

The downgrade of Pluto from planet to dwarf planet happened in 2006 and most of us have never forgiven scientists. But that’s what science is for: it helps us learn and gain a better understanding of the universe we inhabit. If science didn’t change, what’s the point of it? Well now, we have the possibility of another redefinition! Isn’t science fun? (Though, I wouldn’t get your hopes up about Pluto becoming a planet again. It’s only about 30km bigger than Eris.)

It’s not just Pluto, the New Horizons probe has given us so much new information on its three billion mile journey away from Earth. Like new photos of Jupiter’s moons, and better tracking of known asteroids. The main mission was to explore the Kuiper belt—the neighborhood Pluto is part of—and it will continue feeding us information from the Kuiper belt. This is the farthest known point of our solar system and may have many larger answers about how exactly our solar system came to be. I, for one, am excited to see what else New Horizons has for us.

If you want to get your Pluto fix, NASA has an entire site devoted to New Horizons. You can even make your own globe of the newly imaged Pluto:

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