Whether Pluto is a planet or not, with NASA’s New Horizons mission to the tiny, faraway place, the little guy on the block again got some time in the spotlight.
New Horizons’ flyby gave Pluto its close-up with the most detailed pictures ever of the dwarf planet. The astonishing images not only shed light on the mysteries of the outer solar system, but proved once again that Pluto fascinates people, even if it is no longer the solar system’s ninth planet.
The space probe flew an astonishing 3 billion-plus miles to observe the dwarf planet. The flyby is by far the furthest a craft has ever gone exploring into space, and pictures of Pluto and its moons revealed fascinating geography and topography of significantly more variation than was previously thought could exist there.
New Horizons also helped us gain a much better understanding than we ever before had of Pluto, which has long fascinated scientists and astronomical observers. In the early 20th century, observers had long posited that because of neighboring Neptune’s orbit and behavior, a ninth planet existed. This search was begun in earnest by a wealthy Bostonian, Percival Lowell, who founded the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Ariz. Then coined “Planet X” by Lowell, he commenced to unsuccessfully search for the elusive furthest planet in the solar system until his death in 1916.
It wasn’t until 1930, through Clyde Tombaugh’s painstaking observations and comparisons of photographs of the distant sky, that Pluto was discovered and became our last neighbor. Pluto then enjoyed more than 60 years of unbroken fame as a planet and fully credentialed member of the solar system. But by the 1990s, trouble for the little guy was ahead.
Under closer examination, the tiny object’s size and density had been called into question and its status as a planet threatened. A further blow to its membership came when Pluto was determined to not be much larger than objects at the fringe of the solar system’s Kuiper Belt neighborhood. In 2006, the dwarf planet was reclassified as such because it failed to clear that neighborhood — the ring of objects made of ice and rock at the edge of the solar system, which contains many smaller objects that are not big enough to be called planets on their own. Pluto was relegated a planetesimal by the classification adopted by the International Astronomical Union to define what is, in fact, a planet.
Pluto was determined to fall short of full-planet status because it fails to meet the condition that it “must have cleared the neighborhood around its orbit.” Following this reclassification, some astronomers, amateur sky-watchers and members of the public have stuck up for Pluto, rallied for the cause and demanded that it be honored as a full planet and the ninth member of the solar system.
But the cause was unsuccessful. However, the mystery and controversy that have surrounded little, old mysterious Pluto have made it a star of the solar system, regardless of whether it’s a planet or not.
And now with New Horizons’ recent observations, our understanding of the distant object has only grown. Previously thought to be boring, barren surfaces, Pluto and its five satellites have been revealed to contain diverse and fascinating features of icy mountains, volcanoes and deep valleys. Somewhat ironically, these findings have deepened our understanding of the furthest reaches of the solar system, the misunderstood little guy at its edge and have only made the long mystery of Pluto even more fascinating.
Traveling at about 30,000 mph, New Horizons has already passed Pluto, but because of its vast distance from the Earth, the probe has only begun to send back a portion of the wealth of images captured. As the far end of the solar system continues to amaze with its revelations, here’s to sticking up for the little guy on the block. Turns out Pluto isn’t so boring so boring after all.
Noah Zuss is a reporter for TheBlot Magazine.