On June 14 the NASA space probe New Horizons will finally reach Pluto after a long journey begun in 2006. The craft will fly by Pluto as it heads for the ends of the Kuiper Belt.
Pluto, which is now considered a member of the Kuiper Belt is the largest object in the space debris cluster. However it is not the largest of the TNO (Trans Neptunian Objects) cluster, which extends far beyond Pluto’s orbit around the Sun.
Eris, a dwarf planet discovered in 2005 which is thought to have a larger mass than Pluto is the largest dwarf planet in the solar system and the 9’th largest object that directly orbits the Sun. Eris was the cause of Pluto’s downgrade from planet status.
When it was discovered, to everyone’s surprise it became clear that it was bigger than Pluto (10’th largest object to orbit the Sun directly) making it the farthest dwarf planet orbiting the Sun directly and ending Pluto’s reign.
The New Horizons craft is tasked with collecting data that will help scientists understand how the Pluto system formed along with the Kuiper Belt and bring insights into the transformation of the Early Solar System
On February 28 2007, New Horizons had passed by Jupiter at a distance of 2.3 Km from the planet, and used the giant planet’s gravity to boost its speed by 4 km a second. The gravity assist helped New Horizons reach Pluto faster, increasing the speed by as much as 336.000 km per day.
The first flyby of Pluto will take place on the 14’th of June, when the New Horizons space probe will activate it’s systems including data collection and image taking equipment.
New Horizons is tasked with studying not only Pluto but it’s moons, and will collect data on the surfaces and atmospheres of these celestial bodies as well as their environments and topography. The data sent by the probe will require at least 6 months to reach Earth.
Pluto had been downgraded from the rank of planet not only because of the discovery of Erin, but because it did comply with only 2ot of 3 of the criteria necessary for a space object to be classified a planet.
Pluto does orbit the Sun and it did have enough gravity to pull itself into spherical shape but did not have the mass or size to “clear the neighborhood” of its orbit. “Clearing the Neighborhood” means that a planet has to have enough mass to either sling objects away from its orbit or consume and reshape them.
Image Source: vox.com