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Voyage to a Double Planet
By Patrick L. Barry and Dr. Tony Phillips
Download a "nine planets" screensaver for your
with spectacular photos of our solar system, and you'll notice that
one planet is conspicuously missing: Pluto. Icy and mysterious, Pluto
is the only planet never visited and photographed by NASA
In fact, the clearest image we have of Pluto is a tiny, pixelated blob
of light and dark patches taken by the Hubble Space Telescope in
1994. It's tantalizing &md; but not much more. Earth-based
telescopes have succeeded, however, in discovering one amazing fact:
Pluto is not a lone world, but a double-planet system.
measuring about half the size of Pluto itself, is named
Work is underway to launch a robotic probe to visit and
Pluto and Charon. The project, called New Horizons, will
worlds. Sensors will chart surface minerals and ices, and
gases that make up Pluto's wispy atmosphere.
"It's the second epoch in the exploration of the planets,"
says Alan Stern, the principal investigator for New Horizons at the
Southwest Research Institute in Colorado. "We're going to the
very edge of the solar system."
The probe is scheduled to launch in January 2006. Its journey
will be a long one. Pluto is more than 30 times further away from the
Sun than Earth is! Even with a speed boost from a fly
by of Jupiter,
the probe won't arrive at Pluto until July 2015. Afterward, the probe
will venture on to explore the Kuiper Belt, a distant "halo"
of small, frozen objects surrounding the solar system, from
Aside from sheer curiosity about these distant worlds, scientists are
motivated by questions about the formation of the solar system.
Orbiting in the deep freeze far from the sun, Pluto and
undergone less change than the inner planets during the solar system's
4.5 billion year history. These two worlds will provide a
glimpse into the past.
Pluto could also shed light on the origin of our own
Moon. Earth, with
its single, large moon, is unusual. The Pluto-Charon system
only other pair like it in the solar system. In fact,
consider Earth and the Moon to be a double planet, too.
more about Pluto and Charon could give clues about how
And, of course, the spectacular, up-close photos of Pluto
are going to look great as a screensaver!
Artist's idea of the New Horizons spacecraft flying by Pluto and its
moon, Charon . (Credit: Dan Durda.)
See more images at:
article was provided by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California
Institute of Technology, under a contract with the National
Aeronautics and Space Administration.
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