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What Is Pluto? A New Video from New Horizons

Is Pluto a planet? A dwarf planet? A Kuiper Belt Object? All — or none — of the above?

Pluto has been a topic of scientific fascination since Clyde Tombaugh discovered it in February 1930, and then a topic of controversy after the IAU reclassified it as a dwarf planet in 2006. While conversations continue over Pluto’s planetary identity, at least one theme carried through the talks at the Pluto Science Conference in July 2013. See if you can figure out what it is in the video above! (Hint: it’s not difficult.)

NASA’s New Horizons mission will help us understand worlds at the planetary frontier by making the first reconnaissance of Pluto in July 2015. Read more about the mission here.



Fastest, Farthest, First: New Horizons Closing in on Pluto

It’s a journey spanning 85 years and billions of miles: humanity’s first-ever encounter with the dwarf planet system of Pluto and Charon, located in the frozen far reaches of our Solar System where our entire planet is a barely-visible pale blue dot — just a “mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.” Launched in 2006, the New Horizons spacecraft will pass by Pluto in July 2015 and send back images and data in unprecedented detail, 85 years after its discovery. With the flyby just about a year and a half away, the excitement in the space community is rapidly building even now.

The video above is a “teaser” for the event from the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University — check it out. (Warning: may contain scenes of intense scientific discovery!) Also, watch a longer documentary below on the history of Pluto and the New Horizons mission:
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New Horizons’ First Look at Pluto’s Big Moon

Pluto and Charon as seen by the approaching New Horizons spacecraft

Pluto and Charon as seen by the approaching New Horizons spacecraft

The two bright clusters of pixels in the image above might not seem like much of a big deal, but they are… those two blocky blobs are the dwarf planet Pluto and its largest moon, Charon, as seen by the rapidly-approaching New Horizons spacecraft, destined for its ultimate close encounter in July 2015!

This represents a major milestone on the spacecraft’s 9½-year journey to conduct humanity’s first close-up reconnaissance of the Pluto system and the Kuiper Belt and, in a sense, begins the mission’s long-range study of the Pluto system.

And that’s a very big deal indeed. Read on, fellow space fans…

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Here’s Something Else to Vote On: Names for Pluto’s Newest Moons!

Hubble image of the newly-expanded Pluto family (NASA, ESA and M. Showalter/SETI)

Since we’re all in the democratic mood here today in the U.S., how about another chance to put your vote in on something: names for Pluto’s newest moons!

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What We’ve Learned From The Kuiper Belt

The first Kuiper Belt Object (besides Pluto and Charon) was 1992 QB1, first spotted on August 30, 1992 (ESO)

Today marks the 20th anniversary of the discovery of the first Kuiper Belt Object, 1992QB1. Called KBOs for short, these are distant and mostly tiny worlds made up of ice and rock that orbit the Sun at incredible distances, yet are still very much members of our Solar System. Since 1992 over 1,300 KBOs have been found, and with NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft speeding along to its July 2015 rendezvous with Pluto and Charon (which one could reasonably argue are technically the first KBOs ever found) and then onwards into the Belt, we will soon know much more about these far-flung denizens of deep space. But how has the discovery of the Kuiper Belt — first proposed by Gerard Kuiper in 1951 — changed our understanding of the Solar System?

Find out here.

Hubble Spots Jupiter’s Spooky Northern Lights

Hubble image of Jupiter's aurora (March 2007)

Acquired in March 2007, this eerie image from Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys’s ultraviolet camera show glowing auroral emissions, always present in Jupiter’s polar regions.

The aurora is hundreds of kilometers wide and about 250 kilometers above the planet. It is caused by electrically charged particles striking atoms in the upper atmosphere from above, the same process involved in Earth’s aurorae (except that Jupiter’s magnetic field is orders of magnitude more powerful than Earth’s!)

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If You Like Pluto, Put a Ring on It

Hubble image of Pluto and its four known moons. NASA, ESA, and M. Showalter (SETI Institute)

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft is currently speeding through the outer solar system toward its July 2015 date with Pluto, when it will take a good close look at the dwarf planet’s mysterious surface, atmosphere, moons, and… rings?

Less than three-quarters the size of our moon, Pluto nevertheless has no shortage of fascinating features. It has a curiously mottled coloration that seems to change with its seasons, an atmosphere that expands and falls back onto its surface, a system of four moons in orbit around it — the most recent of which, currently called “P4″, was announced just last summer — and, according to Planetary Science Institute senior scientist Henry Throoppossibly even a system of rings.

Hey, at this point… why not?

Read the rest of this article on National Geographic News Watch here.


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