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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

Getting Excited About Pluto? I Am!

By Phil Plait

In just a few days, we’re going to see a whole new world.

Worlds, actually. Pluto is ready for its close-up, and so is its moon Charon, which, at more than half Pluto’s diameter, is a decent-size place to visit, too.

It feels like the entire astronomical community is gearing up for the event, and certainly the entire science communication community is. Every day we see Pluto a little bigger, and what the New Horizons probe sees has been better than even Hubble’s view for weeks.

Closest approach is next Tuesday but the images we’ll see even before then will be amazing, and we’ll be getting images of the event for a year after (such are data rates when the nearest Internet service provider is 5 billion kilometers away). So this won’t be a sudden thing, where we get flooded with tons of highly detailed images.

Still, the excitement is palpable. To help you get fired up and see what’s getting everyone’s adrenaline flowing, here’s a short video to give you a taste of why we’re doing this:

There’s also this brief overview of the mission, too:

And just for fun: My friend Dan Durda is an astronomer and artist, and he created a very nifty 3-D computer model of the New Horizons probe; he also made a short animation of it:

Wow. I think my favorite part is when you can see the open “lens cap” on LORRI, the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager, which has been what’s returning the amazing shots we’ve been seeing for months. Soon, though, it’ll be Ralph’s turn to shine; that’s the color imager that will make the hi-res maps of the surfaces of Pluto and Charon.

What will we see? Beats me. The image at the top of this article was taken on July 7 from a distance of less than 8 million kilometers—it’s raw, meaning I’ve done no processing on it at all, not even enlarged it!—and it looks about as good as older pictures of Mars taken through Earth-based telescopes decades ago. Think about how different Mars looks to us now, and how much we’ve learned! Pluto is about to undergo a similar transformation.

Stay tuned. We have new worlds to explore.

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