Two Weeks to Pluto! Latest News from Final Approach

As is the case with any final approach to a new object, the early images, with their horrible resolution, pixelated appearance, and possibly false features due to processing, lead to significant speculation on what we will see as the craft approaches. It was the same a few months ago with Ceres. I personally love the blurry images. It’s a mystery waiting to be solved, and we see it unfold as we move ever closer to our destination. It also reminds me of the early days of the internet I grew up with, using a good old 28.8K modem and waiting 2 minutes to load a single picture on a website.  But enough about my old age, Pluto is coming into view!

Pluto with visible features! Some may be artifacts from image processing, others may be real! Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

With only two weeks to go until closest approach, the nine year journey of the New Horizons mission to Pluto is reaching its crescendo!  We are the first generation of humans in history to observe the surface of the former 9th planet, and we will not be the last.

On July 14th, the craft will pass within 12,000 Km of Pluto, unleashing its full repertoire of scientific instruments and sending byte after byte of sweet sweet data back to Earth.  If you can’t feel my excitement from these writings, talk to any astronomer and you’ll see them salivating too.

Pluto and Charon orbit in this series of images. Credit: NASA/ New Horizons

The images above are my favorite recent set.  They clearly show that Pluto and Charon actually orbit a point between them. This is because Charon’s mass is significantly large compared to Pluto’s, and their gravitational balance point (called center of gravity) falls in the space between them. This is true of all systems of planets and Moons, though usually the central body is much larger and the center of gravity falls within it, causing more of a wobble than an actual circle.

It’s this same effect that lets us discover planets around distant stars.  The large planet has gravity that pulls on it’s host star, causing it to orbit a point slightly off-center, and wobble.  This wobble can be detected from Earth, and the size of the wobble can give us the size and distance of the planet orbiting the star.  Pretty amazing how our understanding of gravity can give us techniques to see beyond the abilities of our telescopes.

It will be n exciting two weeks for astronomy and especially planetary science with the arrival at Pluto on the 14th. You can bet I will be covering it fully with the latest news and images.  This is a huge step for humanity, and it completes our first reconnaissance of the solar system.

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