Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Happy Pluto Day!

This is it!  Our first good look at Pluto should be happening right now!  If everything went according to plan, the New Horizons probe went silent last night at a little past eleven Eastern time, and it will check in again tonight at a little after nine Eastern time.  Why the silence?  New Horizons has finally reached Pluto, and it's gathering data on the dwarf planet and its moons.  The probe needs to put all its attention on the planet because it is literally moving faster than a speeding bullet!

Some of the fastest bullets come out of tank guns, and they travel around 3800 miles per hour.  New Horizons is traveling at 31,000 mph, which is almost about 8 times faster than our fastest bullets.  To put that in perspective, if New Horizons traveled as fast as a speeding bullet, it would need more than 70 years to get to Pluto.  If you wanted to drive to Pluto in your car at highway speed, it would take 4900 years of nonstop driving to get there.

New Horizons is going so fast, it will fly by Pluto's surface in a just a few minutes.  It doesn't have enough power to slow down, and Pluto's gravity is too weak to drag something going that fast into orbit.  (How weak is Pluto's gravity?  it's about 7% the gravity of earth.  So if you weigh 200 lbs here on earth, you would weigh only 14 lbs on Pluto.)  If you've ever tried to take photographs of something as you drive by on the highway, imagine that but 443 times faster.

I'll be waiting up tonight to see what happens after New Horizons checks in.  The photos won't be available right away, because it takes 4.5 hours to transmit a message from the probe to earth, and there will be a lot of data to download.  But by this time next week, we should have some really stunning views of the latest frontier in our solar system.

Feedback? Email me at toddcharleswood [at] gmail [dot] com.