Guest Writer Feature: Plutonic Love by Pecier Decierdo

In this entry, our week's guest writer is resident astronomer and MindMover Pecier Decierdo, who conducts the Museum's Awesome Astronomy program every Sunday. 

Pluto, by any other name, will still be most kids' favorite Kuiper Belt Object. And pretty soon, those same kids (many of whom double as grown ups by day) will have high-resolution pictures of Pluto to glue on the walls of their rooms.

How soon? Less than a month from now.

NASA's New Horizons mission is now on the final stretch of its 9-year journey to the dwarf planet Pluto. It will make its closest approach to the Pluto system this 14th of July 2015, around 7:50 PM Philippine Standard Time.

During its closest approach to the Pluto system, New Horizons will beam back pictures and precise measurements of Pluto and its moons, Charon, Nix, Hydra, Styx, and Kerberos (all of which are awesome names for bands, although some are already taken).

If the New Horizons mission succeeds, these worlds - let that sink in, these are worlds - will be the farthest horizons human science will have explored. 

Image credit: Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory

When New Horizons was launched on the 19th of January 2006, many grade school kids the world over still memorized a Solar System composed of 9 planets.

During New Horizon's long journey, which included gravitational assists by the Earth and Jupiter, members of the International Astronomical Union elected to reclassify Pluto as a dwarf planet, a move that upset many six-year old kids around the world. Even some of the scientists working on the New Horizons mission did not take this news happily.

Eventually, people came to realize that Pluto's reclassification is best for everyone, including for Pluto (and also for the kids who did not have to memorize 13 or more planets).

The more we know about Pluto and its moons, the more we realize that it is more at home with the likes of Eris, Makemake, Haumea, and Quaoar (I challenge you to fit that in a mnemonic device. 

We now know that Pluto belongs to a unique group that comprises its neighbors in the Kuiper Belt, the belt of icy rocks that orbit beyond Neptune. What is it about these Kuiper Belt Objects or KBOs that make them unique?

For one, they are nearly as icy as they are rocky, which make them quite different from the inner rocky planets, the outer gas giants, and the asteroids in between. In fact, many scientists think that the ice and rocks in KBOs hold clues to the formation of the Solar System.

What are these clues? Sorry, no spoilers. You will have to watch out for NASA's press releases as New Horizons sends us back crisp pictures of the most distant world to have been explored.

In case you're only super excited (as opposed to super, super excited, which you should be), watch this goose bump-inducing teaser video prepared by the team working on the New Horizons mission.

References:

1. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (2015). New Horizons. Retrieved from the New Horizons webpage of the NASA website: http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/newhorizons/main/index.html
2. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (2015). Dawn. Retrieved from the Dawn webpage of the NASA website: http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/dawn/main/index.html
3. Seeds, MA. (2003). The Solar System. 3rd ed. CA: Thomson Brooks/Cole. 

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