We are making history today with our closest approach to Pluto

Published: July 14, 2015
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A machine built by humans will be making its closest approach to Pluto – at the frontiers of our Solar System. This spacecraft, called New Horizons has been traveling at the incredible speed of 50,000 km/hour PHOTO: REUTERS

If you are out and about this afternoon or either sitting at home reading this article, at 4:49pm (PST), look up at the sky (please don’t look straight towards the sun) and wait to be blown away by our advancement in technology.

At this precise moment, a machine built by humans will be making its closest approach to Pluto – at the frontiers of our Solar System. This spacecraft, called ‘New Horizons’ has been traveling at the incredible speed of 50,000 kilometres per hour. In case you’re still not impressed, check your speedometer when you are driving on a highway and compare with this the Pluto probe. And yet, considering this speed, it has taken nine long years to get to Pluto.

Don’t blame the spacecraft. Pluto is currently five billion kilometres away and even one of fastest spacecrafts ever built by humans has taken this long to get there.

An American astronomer, Clyde Tombaugh, discovered Pluto in 1930. For the past 85 years, Pluto was seen as a small fuzzy object. Even the best telescopes could not make out much detail of the little planet. In fact, four of its five moons have only been discovered in the last 10 years.

Pluto appearing as a world. This picture was taken by the New Horizons spacecraft on July 12th, when the spacecraft was still 2.5 million kilometers away. On July 14th, it will see Pluto from mere 12,500 kms away. Photo:NASA/Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

In the last few days, however, Pluto has become a real world. Look at the photograph above. This is our best image of Pluto yet. It was taken on July 12th, when the New Horizons spacecraft was 2.5 million kilometres from Pluto. We can already see a couple of craters on the surface, as well as some cliffs (see the annotated image below).

An annotated image of Pluto showing craters and possibly some cliffs as well. Photo: NASA/Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

But hold your breath. The spacecraft will take pictures of Pluto from a distance of only 12,500 kilometres – its closest approach.

What kind of secrets will Pluto reveal then?

Will there be ice volcanoes? Or evidence of a sub–surface ocean? Or perhaps the spacecraft will find things that we have not even imagined about this cousin of ours living in the outskirts of the Solar System.

Whatever it may be, it will be different, fascinating, and stunning. This is the lesson we have learned from explorations of eight planets and their moons.

Until recently, Pluto was the ninth planet of our Solar System. However, in a contentious decision, its status was demoted to a dwarf planet in 2006. I have my own bias in keeping its status as a planet. I obtained by doctorate from the astronomy department at New Mexico State University in the United States. Tombaugh founded this department, and I had a chance to meet him as well as be present at his 90th birthday in 1996. He died the following year, but Pluto retained a special place for astronomers in our department. With the renewed interest in Pluto, I hope its status will be restored as a planet.

Once New Horizons flies past Pluto, it will take a picture of Pluto in the shadow of the sun, an eclipse, which will happen at 5:51 pm (PST). The goal of the image is to get information about the atmosphere of Pluto. But this picture will also tell us that this machine built by humans has successfully gone past one of the nine major bodies in the Solar System.

So today, at 4:49pm (PST), take a deep breath, look up in the sky and appreciate what humans do best – explore!

You can follow the latest updates about the Pluto encounter here.

Salman Hameed

Salman Hameed

The author is an associate professor of integrated science and humanities at Hampshire College, Massachusetts, USA. He runs a Youtube channel of astronomy videos (KianaatAstronomyInUrdu) and tweets @salmanahameed (twitter.com/salmanahameed)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.