Worlds in Motion
The New Horizons mission to the outer solar system scored a big one this week with the release of a set of images that clearly — and I DO mean clearly — show Pluto with its largest companion Charon in motion. This is an amazing shot from a huge distance, and the fact that we can “see” the orbital motion of these two places makes them seem somehow more real now. The New Horizons mission has been on the way to Pluto (and beyond) since 2006, with a main goal of imaging and studying the Pluto system, and then sweeping out to see what else it can find in the Kuiper Belt.
I really like what this mission is going to do. Not only is it opening up a dwarf planet for exploration, but it’s going to tell us an incredible amount of cool stuff about the tremendously cold and frigid worlds that exist “out there”. Pluto is on the doorstep of a place in the solar system that likely contains many more worlds of its size and possibly bigger! This region is a storehouse of materials that exist in pretty much the same chemical state they were in when they formed in the early epochs of solar system history.
The mission’s cameras and other instruments will tell us much about Pluto’s weather (and yes, it HAS weather!), its atmospheric and surface chemistry, and measure its magnetic field. These are all things that planetary scientists have studied at other worlds, and now it’s Pluto’s turn. So, while it may look like a couple of little bitty dots wobbling around a common center of gravity right now, in less than a year, we’ll know more about Pluto, Charon, its moons, and the neighborhood where they “live” than any other human beings in the history of our own planet. I think that’s pretty darned cool!