A year from today a NASA probe will beam back photos of Pluto’s surface — but scientists aren’t entirely sure what we’ll see.
NASA’s New Horizons probe is currently plowing steadily toward the Kuiper belt, a region of frozen objects where the largest of which is the dwarf planet Pluto. But as we only have a few fuzzy Hubble observations to work from, it won’t be until the mission beams back its photographs that we’ll be sure what the little world looks like up-close.
“Because Pluto has never been visited up-close by a spacecraft from Earth, everything we see will be a first,” said Adriana Ocampo, the Program Executive for NASA’s New Frontiers program at NASA headquarters, in a news release. “I know this will be an astonishing experience full of history making moments.”
The Pluto flyby is due to occur in July 2015 and the robotic probe will fly through the Pluto-Charon system, coming within 10,000 kilometers (6,200 miles) from the little world’s surface. It will be a risky maneuver, but it will be worth it. From that distance with New Horizons’ high resolution cameras, if it was flying past Earth, the mission would be able to resolve individual buildings.
However, navigating through the Pluto-Charon system could expose the spacecraft to debris surrounding Pluto. Astronomers have discovered four more small moons other than Charon named Styx, Nix, Kerberos, and Hydra (the latter two were only detected in 2011 and 2012). This has led many astronomers to believe Pluto’s orbital environment might be filled with smaller rocks and ring systems that could pose a collision risk to New Horizons.
Although the risks are daunting, they’re not distracting mission scientists from the boon in science that we’ll experience in only 12 months time.
“Many predictions have being made by the science community, including possible rings, geyser eruptions, and even lakes,” said Ocampo. “Whatever we find, I believe Pluto and its satellites will surpass all our expectations and surprise us beyond our imagination.
“Think about seeing something for the first time and discovering the unknown. That’s what we’re about to do.”
Add the New Horizons encounter with Pluto with the NASA Dawn mission encounter with dwarf planet Ceres in February 2015, perhaps next year should be known as the ‘Year of the Dwarf Planet,’ when we’ll see two tiny dynamic worlds up-close for the first time.