What does the Pluto space mission mean for us?

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Unless you have been living under a rock the past couple of months, you are aware that NASA’s space mission to Pluto arrives at the dwarf planet today.  In August 2006 the International Astronomical Union (IAU) rightfully downgraded the status of Pluto to that of “dwarf planet.”  This was due to the very small size of the object in relation to the planets in the Solar System.

Pluto is peculiar in other ways in that it is part of a binary dwarf planet system it shares with the dwarf planet Charon.  Additionally, both Pluto and Charon were not formed in the same way the Solar System planets were.  Pluto and Charon were captured objects from the Kuiper belt.

Space.com video briefing on the Pluto mission:

So what does this latest space probe mission to Pluto mean to us?  Why should we care?  Here are a few reasons why this mission is meaningful and unlike other missions in the past.

  • We have never really seen Pluto before.
    Until very recently, we didn’t even know exactly what color Pluto was.  The best photo we had of Pluto was a fuzzy image taken from the Hubble Space Telescope.  This mission will provide the first high resolution pictures we have ever seen of the planet.
  • This is a big breakthrough in technology.
    The difficulty in sending a spacecraft so far to see such a small planet is hard to imagine.  It took New Horizons nine years to cover the 3-billion-mile trip there.  NASA engineers managed to get the tiny probe to an incredibly precise spot in space, using Jupiter’s gravity as a slingshot to accelerate it outward and a few thruster burns over the years to keep the probe on track.  Because New Horizons is traveling at such a high speed (about 31,000 miles per hour) and can’t slow down, the flyby will be over in a matter of minutes — forcing it to collect all its data in a tiny window of time.
New Horizons' trajectory through the solar system. (JHU/APL)
New Horizons’ trajectory through the solar system. (JHU/APL)
  • This mission will help us better understand the rest of the Solar System.
    One of the reasons scientists want to learn more about Pluto is that it likely formed at the same time as the rest of our solar system, from the same materials. What’s more, it likely formed much closer in to the sun going through the same early stages of growth as Earth.  All the data collected on its geology, atmosphere, and moons will help scientists refine their ideas about this early era in our planet’s history.
  • The mission shows just how huge the distances within our Solar System are.
    One way to imagine the distance to Pluto is to think of Earth as a basketball. By comparison, Pluto would be a little larger than a golf ball. But if you wanted to keep the scale constant, you’d have to put that golf ball 50 miles away!
  • It’s the first time in a generation we are seeing a new planet.
    Since the dawn of the space age, we’ve been exploring our solar system, sending space probes to each of the planets.  We had missions to Venus and Mars in the 1960s, Mercury, Jupiter, and Saturn in the ’70s, and Uranus and Neptune in the ’80s. These probes have shown us entirely new worlds.
  • There won’t be missions like this for a very long time.
    The past few decades have been filled with all sorts of fascinating missions to the planets, moons, asteroids, and comets.  But that era is largely drawing to a close. This is the result of cutbacks to NASA’s planetary exploration budget.  A mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa is in the works, but it likely won’t be launched until 2025 at the earliest, and wouldn’t reach Europa until the 2030s.