Pluto Mission: Reaching The Unreachable

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Mercury (1974), Venus (1962), Mars (1965), Jupiter (1973), Saturn (1979), Uranus (1986), Neptune (1989) and now Pluto (2015), the time line of having the encounters with the planets of our solar system has now been completed. On, 14th July first images of Pluto were being received by NASA from its ambitious project New Horizons. This also resulted in the ending of the long battle of giving Pluto a planetary status as there were many more Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs), some rivaling the size of Pluto, having a possibility of a solar system which includes dozens of planets making Pluto as a scape goat and removing it from the planet club of the solar system.

Alan Stern, the principal investigator for the Pluto mission has spent years campaigning for it. He ran from panel to panel with pie charts and graphs so as to explain the mission and get it sanctioned but owing to the high cost and terming it as ‘impossible’ to reach there and receiving something fruitful he was denied the opportunity. The last dice to roll was of feelings of the people towards Pluto and “Don’t mess with Pluto” campaign got started. An insurrection from the press to little kids was started and in the year 2001 the Pluto mission got a thumps up, the same year when Neil de Grasse Tyson, director of Hayden Planetarium left Pluto from a display at the planetarium’s newly renovated main gallery. The discrimination did not stopped even here also in 2006 International Astronomical Union (IAU), the cosmic court of last appeal agreed with Tyson’s action and removed Pluto from the planet club.

Clyde Tombaugh an Illinios farm boy working at Arizona’s Lowell Observatory discovered Pluto in 1930, firing the public imagination and was termed as New Planet, it got its familiar name by a suggestion from a 11-year old British girl named Venetia Burney, she thought that the Roman god of the underworld will capture the surrounding feeling of the remote and dark world. On Stern’s insistence some of the ashes of Tombaugh are onboard New Horizons who died in 1997.

This mission is the first of its kind in NASA’s New Frontiers mission category more expensive that the Discovery missions but smaller that the Flagship programs costing approximately over $700 million over a time span of 15 years (2001-2016). Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) and the John Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory are the architects of the New Horizons spacecraft. From its separation from the launch vehicle, the control of the spacecraft was being taken over by Missions Operation Centre (MOC) situated at the Applied Physics Laboratory in Howard County, Maryland while the science instruments are being operated at the Clyde Tombaugh Science Operations Center (T-SOC) in Boulder, Colorado.

The New Horizons was originally voyaged to explore the only unexplored planet in the Solar System. At, the time of its launch Pluto was still classified as a planet later to be reclassified as dwarf planet by the IAU. It also have a connection with Pluto’s satellites Nix and Hydra their first letters are initials in New Horizons.

Having the goal to understand the formation of Pluto, the Kuiper belt and also the transformation of the early solar system this mission is on the verge of achieving the goal. The journey of the mission is a thrilling one like having an encounter with asteroid 132524 APL, while passing Jupiter a gravity assist was provided to the spacecraft resulting in an increased speed by 4km/s this encounter was also taken as a test of the spacecraft’s scientific abilities. On 6th July, it had a near death experience as NASA briefly lost contact with it, an hour and 21 minutes radio silence was there due to an anomaly in one of the command of the spacecraft. Fortunately, that one which won’t be needed for Pluto encounter. The mission will provide us with the information regarding the temperature and environmental conditions of the planet. It also has the ability to observe objects as tiny as a football field at a distance of 12,500 km from the surface of the planet.

The recent pictures received are exciting ones as the main encounter is yet to come and in the words of Mr. Stern “Let’s just go there and see what’s there” as there is a possibility of finding something wonderful, in a planet which is 3.7 billion miles away from our home Earth. What wonders would be created in the vacuum of the never ending space this answer lays in the future. As, the imagination and curiosity of the mankind will be getting answers to their fantasies.

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