CLOSE ENCOUNTERS WITH PLUTO
By: Karinda Jagmohan
History is in the making as an unmanned spacecraft, New Horizons, will fly past Pluto on Tuesday thus providing extraordinary images and information about the distant planet.
This is according to the United States’ National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) who launched the space probe in 2006, just six months before Pluto was demoted to “dwarf planet” status.
Now, towards the end of its’ billion-kilometre journey, New Horizons has already captured pictures of Pluto that show dark spots, craters and possible cliffs and ice caps.
Acclaimed American astronomer, Professor Michael Brown, regarded this as a unique opportunity to encounter the surfaces of the icy world. This venture has attracted the attention of space-fans across the globe – including many South African youth.
Some students at the Durban University of Technology (DUT) expressed their excitement about the mission and favoured a recent photograph of a bright, heart-shaped area on the surface of the little planet.
Engineering student, Sam Langa said, “It’s awesome to see Pluto so close, it makes you wonder about what else is out there, and missions like this give us that information. Who knew there’d be a heart on a planet?”
Yashvir Brijlal, a solar system enthusiast, explained the importance of the mission.
“An opportunity like this only comes once in a lifetime. I’ve seen the first pictures the spacecraft recorded and it’s amazing to see a planet in such detail, it makes you realise how small you really are. I hope more people will pay attention to this, because whatever they [NASA] find will impact our planet too.”
If successful, Pluto will be the last of the nine planets to be visited by a spacecraft, with each exploration teaching us more about the origins of our universe and providing various pathways for the future of humankind.
Recently, the findings of the Mars probe gave way for the Mars One Mission which aims to create a human settlement on our neighbouring planet.
Photographer, Kathryn Green, said that she finds the images of Pluto magnificent and unsettling at the same time.
“I love the fact that our technology allows us to travel to Pluto, but the more you see, the more you’re afraid of what you might see. Space is infinite, and we’re very, very small. Those dark patches on Pluto look like alien houses, and I’m pretty sure there’s Martians on Mars.”
The Cape Centre of the Astronomical Society of Southern Africa (ASSA) explained that the current events are very complex and we are learning a lot now – whether experts or amateurs, we have to debate our ideas and collect more information to explain the dark spots or heart-shaped area on Pluto.
Planetary astronomers at NASA are currently studying the data received by New Horizons to further understand the landscape of Pluto.
Due to the increasing distance between the spacecraft and earth, the feedback of Tuesday’s events may take months to reach earth, however this continues to be an exciting venture – with much delayed-gratification – for space-lovers.
Eyes on Pluto is an interactive application created by NASA that will allow one to follow the New Horizons spacecraft, and to further keep in touch with the mission visit https://www.facebook.com/new.horizons1 and use #PlutoFlyBy on Twitter.