In the latest issue of the National Geographic magazine, the cover displayed a beautiful computer generated image of a dwarf planet, the mysterious Pluto, and its extremely interesting satellite, Caron. The featured article spanned several pages relating a short history of Pluto’s discovery, theories about what kind of surface and atmosphere it may have and, most importantly, details regarding NASA’s spaceship, New Horizons, that will fly by this tiny planet on 14th of July 2015, at a distance of only 12.500 kilometers away.
Several attempts were made in the past to uncover the existence of a rumored ninth planet in the Solar System, including that of the Boston aristocrat and agnostic Percival Lowell, who dedicated himself to discovering “Planet X”. Unfortunately, he died in 1916 without fulfilling his dream.
Nevertheless, only fourteen years later, the long sought planet was discovered by a 24-year-old man, Clyde Tombaugh. He originated from a farm in Kansas, where he learnt how to build telescopes from car parts and other elements. Despite not having any training whatsoever in the field of astronomy, Tombaugh’s perfectionism and dedication lead to the uncovering of the frozen planet at the Lowell Observatory, where he had been hired a few years prior to his discovery. The finding was revealed on 13th of March 1930, 75 years after Percival Lowell was born.
Pluto was named after the suggestion of a little girl from England, whose inspiration was the Roman god of the Underworld, which matched the new planet: incredibly desolate, cold and unknown. Temperatures on Pluto can easily reach -240 degrees Celsius and it needs 248 years to orbit the Sun.
New Horizons itself needed one year of travel to reach Jupiter, where using its massive gravity, it sped up to 83.000 kilometers per hour (1.6 million kilometers in a day!) and thus managed to shorten the journey by 4 years. It needed 8 years though to travel the distance between Jupiter and Pluto. At such speed even a grain of dust can be lethal for the spaceship and scientists are trying to discover possible sources of such formations due to the proximity of comets and ice dwarfs in the Kuiper Belt, a tumultuous world beyond Neptune, where Pluto silently orbits and rotates opposite to Earth’s own rotation. Therefore, the Sun rises in the west and sets in the east.
Pluto is two thousand times smaller than Earth, and Caron itself, discovered in 1978, is half its size. The fascinating thing about Caron is that, compared to how our Moon was formed, it broke away from Pluto in a single, enormous piece and together they created a binary system because of the satellite’s size.
On board New Horizons, among American flags and other “souvenirs”, there is a small vial containing Clyde Tombaugh’s ash, carrying a part of him in the proximity of Pluto and further into the great unknown and vast expanse of the galaxy until fuel tanks run dry or another careless stellar traveler comes its way.