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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

To Pluto

By Phil Plait

Why is it so many of us are excited about the New Horizons mission to Pluto?

This. This is why.

That video was created by Erik Wernquist, the brilliant mind behind Wanderers, what I consider one of the best paeans to exploration ever made.

And like Wanderers, all the places in the New Horizons video are real. We see Venus; Mars (flying over Valles Marineris; a rift valley that dwarfs the Grand Canyon); volcanoes of sulfur erupting over the moon Io as Jupiter and its Red Spot hover into view; the two-faced ice moon Iapetus, stained with organic compounds, revealing the magnificence of Saturn as we slide by; Uranus, its atmosphere a teal green from the presence of methane; Neptune and its moon Triton, with its geyserlike eruptions of nitrogen blasting into its extremely tenuous atmosphere …

… and then Pluto. As I write this, just over three weeks before the New Horizon probe pierces the tiny world’s region of space, we still only have fuzzy pictures of Pluto, a mere dozen or so pixels across. Astronomers have many ideas on what we’ll see when the spacecraft sends back its images over the staggering vastness of 5 billion kilometers of solar system, but the bottom line is we don’t know exactly what we’ll find.

If we did, it wouldn’t be exploration.

You can follow along with this journey using the Pluto Safari app, and of course by keeping tabs on the New Horizons website.

This is more than just terra incognita. It’s spatium incognita. Whether you think Pluto is a planet or just the biggest of the Kuiper Belt Objects, it’s a marvelous step in our exploration of the solar system.

And we’ll be seeing it for the very first time in the history of all humanity, very, very soon.

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