Believe it or not, but prior to this year, we really had very little idea what Pluto actually looked like. The best images we had were blurry and formed of nothing more than a few pixels…which is really testament to the fact that Pluto is very small (about a third of the volume of the Moon, or less than one percent of the volume of the Earth), and very, very far away (thousands of millions of kilometres away; for comparison, the Moon is “only” about half a million kilometres away).
But we live in exciting times, and our ignorance about Pluto is changing rapidly. That’s because NASA’s New Horizons probe has been travelling for almost 10 years towards Pluto, and will make a close approach this Tuesday (14th July).
At the moment, it’s about a million kilometres from Pluto, travelling at more than 50,000 km/h (that’s 14 km per second!), and is already beaming back (by far) the clearest ever images of Pluto and its largest moon Charon. The images contain four dark spots each several hundred kilometres across, as well as evidence of a possible polar cap on Pluto.
On Tuesday it’ll snap photos from an altitude of just 12,500 km above Pluto. I wait with bated breath!
Be sure to follow New Horizon’s progress here.
"People are just thrilled and they have big smiles on their faces, and the data that's coming down - even though it's only a small amount of what the spacecraft's taking - is so beautiful. Pluto is not disappointing. Pluto is spectacular."