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Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Space Probe to Visit Pluto and Beyond

Of all the planets in our solar system, distant Pluto remains the only one that has yet to be visited and studied by a man-made spacecraft. Hopefully, that will change in July 2015, when NASA's New Horizons probe is scheduled to make a fly-by of Pluto and its moon Charon.

The launch, scheduled for this afternoon, was scrubbed due to high winds, but has been rescheduled for 1:16 PM EST tomorrow. Once launched, the probe will leave Earth at 36,000 MPH -- the fastest a spacecraft has ever traveled -- and will reach Jupiter next year to get a "slingshot" boost that will propel it toward the edge of the solar system within eight more years.

At 3 billion miles away, Pluto is so small and so distant that virtually nothing is known about it. Not even the Hubble space telescope can produce a quality rendering of its surface (though Hubble did discover two additional moons in May 2005). "What we know about Pluto today could fit on the back of a postage stamp," said Colleen Hartman, a deputy associate administrator at NASA. "The textbooks will be rewritten after this mission is completed." One question that the $700 million New Horizons project might help settle is whether Pluto should rightfully be considered a planet at all, or something else, as some astronomers suggest.

After flying by Pluto-Charon, New Horizons will explore the Kuiper Belt, a zone of icy, rocky debris that could provide a glimpse of conditions in the primordial solar system, before the planets were formed.

UPDATE: After several weather-related delays, New Horizons launched successfully this afternoon (1/19) from Cape Canaveral, Florida.

Source: AP (Excite)