The ball at the end of the solar system

I know ya’ll think of Pluto as a barren, godforsaken excuse of a planet that ought to be reclassified as a lump of sawdust n’ spit. But that could change when the New Horizons spacecraft arrives at the solar system’s most distant minor second class could-do-better planet (or whatever Pluto is these days) sometime in 2015.

This week the arXiv hosts a series of papers by Alan “Right Hand” Stearn and the New Horizons team outlining the mission, its history and its scientific goals. The papers also include a detailed run down of the various cameras and sensors the spacecraft will use for its sniff ‘n’ lick study of Pluto and its three satellites.

And ah don’t mind tellin yer that Pluto looks a mite more interestin’ than ya’ll would have believed. Turns out Pluto has a variable atmosphere of nitrogen, methane and carbon monoxide that sublimes and condenses with the seasons, as if Pluto were breathin’. These gases interact with sunlight creatin’ a rich photochemistry that has colored the planet red.

Pluto’s largest satellite Charon is a different kettle o fish. Charon has no atmosphere to speak of and bears a striking resemblance to a giant ball of ice, which is probably what it is. Charon is so big that the centre of mass of the two body system lies outside Pluto. So they both circle about a central point. The two other satellites, Nix and Hydra, are so new (discovered in 2005) that nobody knows nothin about em yet.

After almost a decade en route, New Horizons will have only 200 days to take a good look at the Plutonian system. Should be excitin’, if yer can stand the wait.

And if all goes well with the Pluto encounter , New Horizons will continue its journey into the Kuiper Belt to look at one or two of them icy lumps out there (if NASA coughs up the readies, that is).

In the meantime, New Horizons has just finished a fly by of Jupiter which it used for a gravitational slingshot. Expect to see the data from this in the next few months.

Just one thing though fellas. New Horizons? What kind of a half-baked name is that for a spacecraft? Surely Right Hand Stearn can come up with something better than that. And with nothing else on his plate till 2015, he ain’t short of time.

References The New Horizons Pluto Kuiper belt Mission: An Overview with Historical Context New Horizons: Anticipated Scientific Investigations at the Pluto System. The Pluto Energetic Particle Spectrometer Science Investigation (PEPSSI) on the New Horizons Mission The New Horizons Spacecraft

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