Monday, July 13, 2015

NASA New Horizons historic flyby of Pluto underway

New Horizon images of the icy dwarf planet Pluto. (NASA)

After traveling over three billion miles a small NASA spacecraft is making a historic fly-by of the icy dwarf planet Pluto and returning the first up close images and science data ever recorded.

Soaring at the edge of our solar system at 30,802 m.p.h., New Horizons closest approach to Pluto occurs at 7:49 a.m. EDT on Tuesday. However, new color images and scans of the small planet by a host of science instruments have already giving scientists a fresh look at the size of the unknown celestial body.

(NASA is live streaming video and images of the Pluto encounter here. You can also have real time access to exactly where the space craft is here. Follow the mission on social media via #PlutoFlyby.)

New Horizons mission scientist Bill McKinnon stated on Monday that the decades old debate on the size of Pluto has been answered -- 1,473 miles in diameter. "The size of Pluto has been debated since its discovery in 1930. We are excited to finally lay this question to rest,” McKinnon added.

New images are making NASA scientists grin. "For the first time on Pluto, (new) views reveals linear features that may be cliffs, as well as a circular feature that could be an impact crater," NASA Spokesperson Tricia Talbert discussed on Monday. "Rotating into view (above) is the bright heart-shaped feature that will be seen in more detail during New Horizons’ closest approach."

Pluto (right) and its moon Charon from New Horizons (NASA)
The size of three of the planet's five moons were also discovered, including its largest moon Charon at 751 miles. McKinnon said that the moon's atmosphere does not have a substantial atmosphere.

NASA is referring to Pluto and Charon as the "dynamic duo". Principal Investigator Alan Stern of Boulder, Colorado explained, “These two objects have been together for billions of years, in the same orbit, but they are totally different."

Pluto's smaller moons Hydra and Nix -- 30 miles and 20 miles in diameter, respectively -- likely have icy surfaces giving the two a brilliantly light surface as seen from a distance. These two moons were discovered in 2005 during an observation by the Hubble Space Telescope.

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