Subscribe free to our newsletters via your
. 24/7 Space News .

Dwarf Planet Mysteries Beckon to New Horizons
by Dauna Coulter for NASA Science News
Huntsville AL (SPX) Sep 05, 2011

Pluto is a resident of the Kuiper Belt, a vast region beyond the orbit of Neptune. Stern believes "the Kuiper Belt contains a thousand dwarf planets or more - a whole zoo of them! Dwarf planets are, in fact, the most numerous class of planets in the solar system, and probably in the whole universe."

At this very moment one of the fastest spacecraft ever launched - NASA's New Horizons - is hurtling through the void at nearly one million miles per day. Launched in 2006, it has been in flight longer than some missions last, and still has four more years of travel to go.

New Horizons headed for the lonely world of Pluto on the outer edge of the solar system.

Although astronomers now call Pluto a dwarf planet, "it's actually a large place, about 5,000 miles around at the equator," says Alan Stern, principal investigator for the mission. "And it's never been explored."

Indeed, no spacecraft has ever visited Pluto or any dwarf planet.

"This is a whole new class of worlds," says Stern. "To understand the solar system, we need to understand worlds like Pluto."

Pluto is a resident of the Kuiper Belt, a vast region beyond the orbit of Neptune. Stern believes "the Kuiper Belt contains a thousand dwarf planets or more - a whole zoo of them! Dwarf planets are, in fact, the most numerous class of planets in the solar system, and probably in the whole universe."

Pluto is a world of mysteries. For one thing, Stern wonders, what are the molasses-colored patches on Pluto's surface seen by the Hubble Space Telescope? Some scientists think they could be deposits of primordial organic matter. "New Horizon's spectrometers will help us identify the kinds of organic molecules on Pluto. We expect to find something pretty interesting."

Hubble recently contributed more intrigue by spotting a new moon circling Pluto - bringing the total to four. Composite Hubble images of Pluto now resemble a miniature planetary system. New Horizons will hunt for even more moons as it approaches the dwarf planet.

The probe is primed for detective work - equipped with instruments capable of "knocking the socks off anything Voyager carried." In addition to state of the art spectrometers, New Horizons wields one of the largest and highest resolution interplanetary telescopes ever flown. It's called LORRI, short for Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager.

"At closest approach to Pluto - about 10,000 km up - LORRI can resolve details almost as well as a spy camera. The view will be incredible. If we flew this instrument over Earth at that altitude, we could see individual buildings and their shapes."

What will we see on Pluto? Some researchers say we could spot icy geysers2. Some say we could see those surface deposits of organic material. Stern says simply, "There could be all kinds of surprises! It's a first exploration of a new kind of planet."

Heading far from home, "New Horizons is like Noah's Ark - our ship has two of everything, for backup," says Stern. "Two heaters, two computer systems, two of everything except the scientific instruments. And even those have capabilities to back each other up."

When New Horizons reaches Pluto it will have traveled 9 .5 years - longer than any spacecraft has ever flown to reach its main target. To save power and reduce wear and tear, it hibernates3 much of the time. But all systems will be ready to spring into action upon arrival in 2015.

Mark your calendar.


Related Links
Pluto at APL
The million outer planets of a star called Sol

Comment on this article via your Facebook, Yahoo, AOL, Hotmail login.

Share this article via these popular social media networks DiggDigg RedditReddit GoogleGoogle

Memory Foam Mattress Review
Newsletters :: SpaceDaily :: SpaceWar :: TerraDaily :: Energy Daily
XML Feeds :: Space News :: Earth News :: War News :: Solar Energy News

View from the Summit: Hunting for KBOs at the Top of the World
Boulder CO (SPX) Aug 08, 2011
John Spencer is a member of the New Horizons mission science team, and the coordinator and self-described "cat-herder-in-chief" for the effort to find a Kuiper Belt object flyby target for New Horizons. I'd like to tell you a bit about our recent Kuiper Belt object search observing run on the Subaru telescope on Mauna Kea Observatory in Hawaii, one of a dozen or so KBO search runs we're do ... read more

Armstrong relives historic Moon landing

NASA's Next Generation Robotic Lander Gets Sideways During Test

Moon Express Gets Thumbs-Up from NASA for Developing New Lunar Landing Technology

NASA Moon Mission in Final Preparations for September Launch

Rare martian lake delta spotted by Mars Express

Opportunity Begins Study of Martian Crater

Opportunity Studies Rocks on Crater Rim

Epic search for evidence of life on Mars heats up with focus on high-tech instruments

Space Agencies Meet To Discuss A Global Exploration Roadmap

Space chief warns Israel losing its edge

Hands-on space experience at German Aerospace Day

Russian Firm Unveils Plan for Space Tourism

Chang'e-2 moon orbiter travels around L2 in outer space

China State media says Tiangong 1 to launch in early Sept

Time Limits for Tiangong

Orbits for Tiangong

Wyle Selects Paragon Software For Disaster Recovery Solutions For ISS

Progress 44 accident and its consequences for Space Station

Canadian Robot Repairs Components on the Space Station

Roscosmos plans to return three ISS crew members on Sept 16

Kazakhstan won't ban Russian rocket launches from Baikonur

SwRI selected as payload integrator for three NASA suborbital flight opportunities research providers

Ariane 5's upper payload completes its integration at the Spaceport

Third ATV begins its preparations for launch on Ariane 5

The diamond planet

Greenhouse Effect Could Extend Habitable Zone

A Planet Made of Diamond

Astronomers Find Ice and Possibly Methane on Snow White

Ion armageddon: Measuring the impact energy of highly charged ions

A "nano," environmentally friendly, and low toxicity flame retardant protects fabric

Google doodles a playful mix of art and technology

Penn Physicists Develop New Insight Into How Disordered Solids Deform

The content herein, unless otherwise known to be public domain, are Copyright 1995-2014 - Space Media Network. AFP, UPI and IANS news wire stories are copyright Agence France-Presse, United Press International and Indo-Asia News Service. ESA Portal Reports are copyright European Space Agency. All NASA sourced material is public domain. Additional copyrights may apply in whole or part to other bona fide parties. Advertising does not imply endorsement,agreement or approval of any opinions, statements or information provided by Space Media Network on any Web page published or hosted by Space Media Network. Privacy Statement