At the moment of writing, the NASA New Horizons probe is approaching Pluto for its flyby and data gathering mission. It is an extraordinary feat of engineering to navigate a small craft – about the size of a baby grand piano – 3 billion miles across the solar system to within 8 thousand miles of Pluto’s surface.
I find it magical that all astronomy is done with light and numbers, and what we can discern about a distant body from a handful of photons and an understanding of physics and chemistry. The New Horizons probe will not land any hardware, but will use a sophisticated set of cameras and spectrometers to photograph and analyse the surface of this dwarf planet and its moons. What we will learn from this mission will fill the books of Pluto scholars, turning a blurry disc of light into something geologically tangible – a body of rock and ice.
When I was a baby, the USSR’s Sputnik became the first artificial satellite of Earth – albeit for a very short time. All it could do was emit a ‘beep beep’ radio signal, which was tracked all over the planet. This little satellite lay down a challenge to the rest of the world, and the space race began. It’s rather wonderful, 58 years on, that we have now have a probe at the edge of the Kuiper Belt. New Horizons has already discovered two new moons for Pluto – Kerberos and Styx – and that Pluto is a little bigger than expected. Pictures show signs of cratering on the surface that could indicate icy volcanoes. What strange phenomena will NASA uncover in this frigid place?