This past Tuesday, 18 February, marked the 84th anniversary of the discovery of Pluto, our favourite dwarf planet.
Pluto as seen by the Hubble Space Telescope. Image Credit: NASA, ESA and M.Buie (Southwest Research Institute)
Back in 1930, a young astronomer, Clyde Tombaugh, was studying photographic plates as part of the search for an elusive planet that was theorised to exist beyond Neptune and Uranus.
Of course, we now know that we can’t technically call Pluto a planet, thanks to a decision made by the International Astronomical Union in 2006 (and our own Ron Ekers, who was President of the IAU at the time).
However, this certainly doesn’t take away from the 76 years that Pluto was officially considered the 9th planet. In fact, I have yet to give up on “My Very Easy Memory Jingle Seems Useful Naming Planets” mnemonic when it comes to planetary order.
Even though some believe the “golden age of discovering dwarf planets is over“, there’s no denying that Pluto is still an important part of space exploration.
Of particular note is something we’ve mentioned before: New Horizons, the first ever space exploration mission aimed at understanding Pluto and the icy dwarf planets that reside in the outer regions of our solar system.
During the next few months, in July 2014, the New Horizons spacecraft will prepare for the flyby (due a year later, in 2015) with seven days spent imaging Pluto and its moons for science and its optical navigation needs.
Speaking of icy, NASA recently released a video linking New Horizons with the Winter Olympics.
In April 2015, the New Horizons mission is expected to start an ‘encounter sequence’ with the Pluto system, before reaching the closest point on a flyby a few months later in July 2015. The new 34-m beam waveguide antenna nearing completion at our Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex will be an important tracking station for New Horizons, having supported the mission from the day of its launch in 2006.
CDSCC will continue to support the mission throughout the entire voyage to Pluto, and beyond as the spacecraft travels outwards into the Kuiper Belt region.
To find out more, head to the New Horizons website, or follow the mission’s Twitter account.