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Our Island Universe

Exploring Pluto


On this episode of Our Island Universe: Early discoveries from NASA's New Horizons exploration of Pluto.

Learn more about NASA's New Horizons mission to Pluto.

ShanilVirani, Director of the John C. Wells Planetarium Harrisonburg, VA.

Follow on Twitter as shanilv


On July 14, 2015 the world awaited confirmation that NASA's New Horizons survived its closest approach to Pluto, now labelled a "dwarf planet" and located in the Kuiper belt of our Solar System.

This rendezvous with Pluto was momentous for several reasons. For one it closes the chapter on our reconnaissance tour of our Solar System that first started with the Mariner program in the early 1960s. In fact, July 14, 2015 was the 50th anniversary of Mariner 4, the first mission to explore Mars! Now, in 2015, our species has sent robotic sentinels that have visited all 8 major planets, 2 dwarf planets, and even a comet that all revolve around our star! A significant milestone in our exploration.

But the pictures of Pluto returned from New Horizons are just as important. They showed a surface that no one was expecting! The images returned show mountains made of ice nearly 11,000 feet high! Areas on the surface devoid of craters suggesting an age much younger than anticipated. To support the mountains observed, Pluto's crust is now thought to be made of water ice rather then frozen nitrogen! Best of all, we are literally seeing the tip of the iceberg. Over 95% of the data from the flyby is still aboard the spacecraft awaiting downlink to Earth. Getting all that data will take about 16 months!

So expect many more images and many more discoveries in the months ahead. New Horizons is a gift that will keep on giving providing us with more clues about how Solar System formed some 5 billion years ago.