In 1968 Man first orbited the moon. In 1977 the Voyager probes reached Jupiter and in 1997 we landed a rover on the surface of Mars. Space exploration is one of our greatest undertakings as a species, staggering in magnitude, inspiring in its conviction, and truly limitless in possibilities. On July 14, 2015 we flew a craft within 8000 miles of what was once the furthest planet in our solar system. For the record, I always thought Pluto got the shaft on its 2006 demotion to a dwarf planet. It was better with 9, we miss you Pluto. But I digress…
In honor of this awesome feat in space exploration, here are 31 facts about the New Horizons mission to (and past) Pluto.
1. Pluto was first discovered in 1930 by Clyde Tombaugh. Astronomer Percival Lowell predicted its existence in 1915.
2. Its name was suggested by a 9-year-old girl named Venetia Burney whose grandfather was friends with an Oxford astronomy professor.
3. Pluto’s surface temperature is -387 degrees Fahrenheit
4. Pluto’s gravity is 6% of Earth’s
5. Pluto has 5 moons: Charon, Nix, Hydra, Styx, Kerberos. All but Charon were discovered during work on the New Horizons mission.
6. Charon is tidally locked to Pluto meaning the planet always faces the same side to its moon.
7. Pluto is ¾ the size of Earth’s Moon, roughly 1,473 miles in diameter (18.5% the size of Earth).
8. Pluto’s orbit is 248 Earth years and its rotational period (aka 1 day) is equal to 6.39 Earth days.
9. Beyond the outer zone of our solar system containing the Gas Giants, Pluto marks the beginning of the third zone of the Ice Worlds.
10. Though it is round and it orbits the sun, the first two criteria for being a planet, Pluto fails in the final standard: it has not “cleared the neighborhood” meaning there are other objects of similar or greater size in the vicinity, dwarf planets and Kuiper Belt Objects (KBO’s). Pluto also occasionally passes through Neptune’s orbit. For these reasons it was demoted to a dwarf planet in 2006.
11. Pluto’s orbit rests on its size relative to the rest of the solar system, currently appearing like a giant dart board.
12. Because of its distance from the Sun, sunlight on Pluto is as bright as moonlight on Earth.
13. New Horizons was launched January 19, 2006.
14. New Horizons is traveling at a speed of 31,000 MPH.
15. It has traveled 3 Billion miles to reach Pluto.
16. New Horizons is the size of a baby grand piano (1000 lbs)
17. The Apollo mission reached the Moon in 3 days. New Horizons reached it in 9 hours.
18. A portion of Clyde Tombaugh’s ashes are one of nine mementos aboard NH.
19. Because of its speed, if NH were to collide with an object as small as a grain of rice it could take out the craft.
20. It takes New Horizons 4 ½ hours to transmit information back to the Earth from Pluto’s distance.
21. Aboard NH are seven scientific instruments: Ralph (visible and infrared imager/spectrometer), Alice (ultraviolet imaging spectrometer), REX (Radio Science EXperiment), LORII (Long Range Reconnaissance Imager), SWAP (Solar Wind Around Pluto), PEPSSI (Pluto Energetic Particle Spectrometer Science Investigation), and SDC (Student Dust Counter).
22. All together they draw 28 watts of power, about half a lightbulb.
23. NH swung by Neptune and took some photos on February 28, 2007. It was the only other planet visited by NH.
24. Disney’s character Pluto first appeared the same year that the planet was discovered, though slightly after.
25. Also aboard NH as a memento is a 1991 postage stamp with “Pluto Not Yet Explored” on it.
26. This photo released on Tuesday (at top) was taken from a distance of 476,000 miles.
27. The photos to be released on Wednesday are roughly 10000X the resolution of the pre-existing Hubble pictures.
28. At its closest New Horizons was 7,750 miles from Pluto, or the distance from NYC to Mumbai, India.
29. It will take about 16 months to fully transmit and download all of NH’s data.
30. New Horizons will next explore large objects in the Kuiper Belt (KBO’s), roughly a billion miles past Pluto, getting there in about three years. The potential KBO’s to be explored were discovered five years after NH’s launch using the Hubble telescope.
31. Of the nine mementos two are cd’s, one with photos of the NASA crew and one with the names of 434,738 people who signed up beforehand to have their names launched into space.