Jared Stirland | Assistant Lifestyle Editor | [email protected]
On January 19, 2006, NASA’s New Horizons space mission sent their satellite probe on a trajectory for Pluto and the Kuiper belt. At 36,373 miles per hour, New Horizons set a record for the fastest man-made object to be launched from Earth.
Early Tuesday morning, July 14, New Horizons, which is about the size of a grand piano, completed its 3 billion mile, nine and a half year journey to Pluto. Later Tuesday night, NASA scientists transmitted a radio signal to the space probe from earth. This allowed them to determine the elemental composition of Pluto’s atmosphere by measuring the radio waves’ velocity.
NASA said it would not be releasing any detailed information to the public until its teams have had enough time to properly analyze the data.
The National Academy of Sciences, a nonprofit organization, listed the exploration of Pluto and the Kuiper belt as the highest priority for the planetary sciences.
“New Horizons is on a journey to a new class of planets we’ve never seen, in a place we’ve never been before. For decades we thought Pluto was this odd little body on the planetary outskirts; now we know it’s really a gateway to an entire region of new worlds in the Kuiper belt, and New Horizons is going to provide the first close-up look at them,” wrote Hal Weaver, a New Horizon project scientist, in an overview of the mission on NASA’s website.
In 2005, a team of researchers from the Palomar Observatory discovered a dwarf planet in the Kuiper belt, naming it Eris. For many years, scientists at NASA speculated that Eris was the largest dwarf planet in our Solar System.
A video press conference released on NASA’s website stated that Pluto’s diameter is larger than initially thought, and bigger than Eris’s, taking the title for biggest Dwarf planet in our solar system.
Tuesday, July 14 will go down as a historic day for the United Sates. It became the first country to visit the eight major planets in our Solar System and the first to send an exploratory satellite into the Kuiper belt.
In a briefing on New Horizons’ approach to Pluto, John Grunsfeld, NASA’s science mission chief said, “This is truly a hallmark in human history.”
After passing Pluto, New Horizons will enter the Kuiper belt to collect information on other dwarf planets, meteors and chunks of frozen methane.
If it can successfully navigate through the Kuiper belt, New Horizons will continue to the Heliosphere and further into the unknown of interstellar space.
“Space is like the ocean and the brain. We don’t really know that much about any of them. They are these unknown mysteries, which is what I think is so cool about NASA and New Horizons. You never know what they will find out there, and that is exciting,” said Bonny Dowling, a psychology student at UVU.