New Horizons Explores the “Third Zone” of the Solar System

Pluto and its largest moon, Charon, taken by the New Horizons spacecraft RALPH color imager. The spacecraft was about 71 million miles from the pair when this was taken. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

A tiny spacecraft with seven powerful instruments is hurrying to Pluto, on its way to return images of a planet that we have only ever seen as a dot in the distance orbiting the Sun in a previously unexplored zone of the solar system. New Horizons will fly by Pluto on July 14, 2015, visiting the last of the known “planets” in our solar system. The last flyby like this, where a spacecraft encountered a previously unexplored world, was made by the Voyager 2 mission when it swept past Neptune in 1989.

“About half the people on our planet have never seen a flyby like this,” said New Horizons PI Alan Stern during today’s NASA press conference about the mission. “This is really unique and historic. I know it sounds like science fiction, but it’s not. Three months from today, we will make the first exploration of Pluto and the Kuiper Belt, which is farther than any shore ever explored by humankind. We will all get to watch as a point of light turns into a planet in a matter of weeks.”

New Horizons started out as a Pluto fast flyby, with a great deal of planning at NASA over a period of a decade before it was built and launched. It may sound like hyperbole, but this mission is going to change our view of the solar system yet again, just as the Pioneer, Voyager, Galileo, and Cassini missions did before it. All but Cassini were flybys, the first tentative “pokes” at new worlds.  This mission  is also a flyby, giving us the first up-close look at a distant world. But, its significance is even bigger than that.  New Horizons is probing what planetary scientists now think of as the “third zone” of the solar system.  And, that’s a big change from the way we’ve always understood our Sun and planets.

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Would You Like to Have Them?

A couple of years ago, my partner and I produced a video called Losing the Dark to help the International Dark-Sky Association reach out to the public about light pollution through planetariums as well as online. The show has been a great hit, and it’s now in 14 languages. It talks about light pollution, its causes, effects, and—very important here—what we can all do to stop shining light into the sky. I invite you to watch it here, download it here (if you’re a planetarian), and support the International Dark-Sky Association in its work to help people use light safely and effectively.

Among IDA’s biggest outreach projects is International Dark Sky Week. They didn’t start this annual event, it was the brainchild of a high school student named Jennifer Barlow, who started it in 2003. It is now a world-wide event, and is a part of Global Astronomy Month (this month, in fact).

How dark are YOUR skies? Use this chart to figure out how much light pollution is affecting your view. Courtesy NASA.

How dark are YOUR skies? Use this chart to figure out how much light pollution is affecting your view. Courtesy (Click image to get a bigger version.)


The idea behind this special week of dark skies is to remind people that the beauty of the night sky is slowly going missing due to light pollution. The night sky is something people around the world share in common, and if we all figure out ways to mitigate light pollution, that beauty will return to us. Another tenet of the celebration is to help people understand the negative aspects of light pollution: to our health, to the environment—and if that doesn’t convince you—to your pocketbook. It costs MONEY to get the fossil fuels to run the power plants that generate the electricity that powers the lights that wash out the sky—which is silly when you think about it. There are better ways to safely light the areas we need.

So, check out Losing the Dark and learn more about Dark Sky Week, and give a little thought to what you can do (even if it’s just your own back yard or front doorstep) to decrease the light we send upwards. Great beauty is worth the effort!

By the way, this month is full of things to celebrate space-wise, as well: Yuri’s Night is Sunday, April 12th, Earth Day is Wednesday, April 22, Astronomy Day is April 25th, and this entire year is the International Year of Light.