Everything You Need to Know about Pluto and New Horizons

Everything You Need to Know about Pluto and New Horizons

Hello Rebels, and welcome back to my life.

A lot of things happened during my recent break from making videos but probably the one I’m most excited about is the New Horizons mission that just reached Pluto, the unfortunately-not-a-planet that’s got astronomers all a-twitter.

They actually are all kind of freaking out on Twitter. It’s adorable.

Just in case you are, like, me a quasi-science geek in that you like science but don’t always keep up on the news of it, here’s everything you need to know about the New Horizons mission and what we’ve learned about Pluto so far.

The New Horizons space probe was launched in 2006, but its origins actually go back much earlier, like to 1990 with a mission called Pluto 350.

That mission was cancelled in the year 2000, reportedly due to budget constraints, and I just have to say to the American government that, you know who never cancelled space exploration missions due to budget constraints? Starfleet, and look where that got them.

NASA received so much backlash over the cancellation because, like, we all kind of love Pluto, that they created the New Frontiers program as a sort of mid-budget catch-all division for similar projects.

We say “mid-budget,” but the total cost is actually $650 million. However, for NASA that’s not a whole lot, especially compared to, say, moon missions and the ISS, all of which require a lot more resources because there are actual, you know, living humans being put into space.

In 2002 the project was effectively cancelled again by the Bush administration—ugly look—by simply not including the project in NASA’s annual budget. But the scientists on the mission had set their hearts on it by now, and they didn’t put up with that.

They published a survey of all NASA missions and placed the New Horizons mission at the top of their priority list, even above future missions to the moon and Jupiter, and after using that report to garner overwhelming support, New Horizons was finally reinstated and given its 2006 launch date.

To get all the way out to Pluto and not take decades doing it, New Horizons was launched at the fastest rate we’ve ever launched anything out of Earth’s orbit, at the blistering speed of 16 kilometers per SECOND.

Just for reference, at that speed you could circle the Earth in 41 minutes.

Then it was nine years of waiting, although the probe did some pretty cool sci-fi stuff during that time.

It flew by and took new photos and readings of Jupiter, also using Jupiter’s gravity to slingshot into even faster speeds, and happened to pass by an asteroid in the asteroid belt close enough to take some observations of that as well.

Then, just a couple of days ago, New Horizons sent back the first high-res photos of Pluto. And I don’t mean the first high-res photos of this mission—I mean the first high-res photos EVER.

See, we’ve never gotten close enough to Pluto to see what it really looks like. Any image you’ve ever seen of the planet is just an artist’s rendition. The best photo we had of it up till now was this.

Pluto animiert 200px.gif
Pluto animiert 200px” by Aineias, NASA, ESA, and M. Buie (Southwest Research Institute)
derivative work: Aineias, Ilmari KaronenPluto_hubble_photomap.jpg via Pluto_animiert.gif. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Yeah. Not very impressive.

But here’s the first image we’ve received of Pluto, as actually photographed by a camera made by human hands.

Pluto by LORRI and Ralph, 13 July 2015.jpg
Pluto by LORRI and Ralph, 13 July 2015” by NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI – solarsystem.nasa.gov. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Just a little bit better, isn’t it?

New Horizons is now gathering more data and will start transmitting it back to Earth soon, but I want to talk about one more cool thing that I haven’t heard a lot of people talking about.

You probably know Pluto isn’t technically a planet, it’s classified as a dwarf planet. But what most people don’t know is that as it moves on its orbital path, Pluto doesn’t rotate…it orbits again.

Pluto’s largest moon is a body called Charon, which narrowly escaped being classified as a dwarf planet itself because of its size. It’s so large, in fact, that it doesn’t orbit Pluto—Pluto and Charon orbit each other.

Here’s a video showing what it looks like.

Pluto-Charon System.gif
Pluto-Charon System” by Stephanie HooverOwn work. Licensed under CC0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The center of gravity of the Pluto mini-system isn’t actually Pluto—it’s that central point in space OUTSIDE of Pluto. This is what’s called a binary orbit, where two objects orbit each other rather than the smaller object orbiting the larger.

A quick side note: if you happen to be reading my Nightblade books, you will have noticed that that world has two moons which themselves happen to be in a binary orbit. And now you know.

The last thing to know about New Horizons and Pluto is that OF COURSE this isn’t everything you need to know. We can’t even imagine all the data that’s going to be coming in from the probe over the next little while, or what it could mean for the future of astronomy.

Rebels, these are super exciting times. Thank you so much for watching, and an extra special shoutout to my Patreon patrons who make all my YouTube videos possible. If you want to help me out, click the Patreon link in the description below. I will see you tomorrow. Byyye.

Garrett Robinson

Over 100,000 readers have read and loved Garrett's books, like the fantasy hits Nightblade and Midrealm. He's also a film festival favorite with movies like Unsaid, and a tech guru who posts lots of helpful how-tos for writers and filmmakers over at garrettbrobinson.com.

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