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Question Your World: What Do We Really Know About Pluto?

New Horizons spacecraft

As culture and technology progress, we learn more and more about the natural world that surrounds us. From the obvious to the abstract, science has brought us a deeper understanding of everything from the daily sunlight that hits the Earth to the most distant places in the known universe. Our solar system is one of the biggest mysteries to humanity and we strive to know more and more about our own back yard. We’ve studied closer objects more, but what about those distant places? What do we really know about Pluto? Listen to this Question Your World radio report produced by the Science Museum of Virginia to find out.

On July 14, 2015 NASA will be making a lot of noise. This is the date that will mark a very important chapter in the story of humanity and our understanding of space. New Horizons was launched in 2006 and has been traveling at a speed of nearly 36,000 miles per hour heading towards its destination, the Pluto system. This mission is not only important for documenting Pluto, but it also gets a more complete reconnaissance of an entirely unexplored part of our solar system.

Small terrestrial planets, the asteroid belt, gas giants, and various other celestial objects have been studied for quite a while now. The Kuiper belt and its distant icy worlds have simply been too far out of reach. Until now. New Horizons will be the first spacecraft to arrive at a new world in 25 years (the last time was when Neptune was visited by Voyager in 1989). This entire mission is a great way for astronomers to further understand mysterous dwarf planets, binary planet systems, distant organic life carrying Kuiper belt objects, orbits of the strange moons in the Pluto system, and beyond!

July 14th will be a very important day as NASA’s data processing centers start to downlink and analyze New Horizons12 hour flyby through the Pluto system. The data coming from Pluto to Earth will have a four and a half hour commute time. So, if all goes as planned we should start to get information on this small and far off world on the night of July 14th and on into the following days, weeks, and months. On a side note, another interesting aspect of this mission is that it’ll take some very precious cargo past the destination. The scientist responsible for discovering Pluto, Clyde Tombaugh, will be honored as his ashes are on board the New Horizons spacecraft. A fitting first visitor to this incredibly far off destination.

As technology allows for more research to happen, we’ll slowly start to piece together the complete story of not only our own solar system, but the entire universe as we further explore what’s out there. This will be a pretty awesome occasion because we’ll finally get photographs and various other detailed information on this distant and relatively mysterious member of our solar system family.