We Have No Idea What Pluto Looks Like

But in one year, we will.

Even the Hubble Space Telescope can only make out the blurry basic features of the planet. This images were taken by Hubble from 2003 to 2003.
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Brian Resnick
July 16, 2014, 8:36 a.m.

Be­low, are the best im­ages we hu­mans have of the dwarf plan­et Pluto.

Even the Hubble Space Tele­scope can only make out the blurry ba­sic fea­tures of the plan­et. These im­ages were taken by Hubble from 2003 to 2003. (NASA)

At best, we can de­scribe it as a red­dish, re­l­at­ively small rocky smudgy thing (with points!). And while we know the ba­sics of the plan­et’s size and shape, we really don’t know what the thing looks like … yet. As a NASA “Sci­enceCast” video on You­Tube ex­plains (em­bed­ded be­low), “No one knows what to ex­pect when the ali­en land­scape comes in­to fo­cus. There could be icy gey­sers, tower­ing moun­tains, deep val­leys, and even plan­et­ary rings.”

Well, mark your cal­en­dars: A year from now—the morn­ing of Ju­ly 14, 2015, to be ex­act—NASA should be able to ob­tain a clear, up-close im­age of the former 9th plan­et. That’s when the New Ho­ri­zons space­craft will make its long-awaited pass of the plan­et. “It’s Bastille Day,” NASA plan­et­ary sci­ent­ist Alan Stern told NPR, dove­tail­ing plan­et­ary and his­tor­ic­al nerdi­ness. “To cel­eb­rate, we’re storm­ing the gates of Pluto. 

New Ho­ri­zons launched in 2006 with a re­cord-break­ing ve­lo­city of 36,373 mph to em­bark on a 4.6 bil­lion-mile jour­ney to Pluto. For some per­spect­ive, it took New Ho­ri­zons one year to ar­rive at Jupiter, and sev­en more to get where it is today, a year’s jour­ney away from Pluto. 

At its closest ap­proach, New Ho­ri­zons will be 6,200 miles above the sur­face of Pluto and will take the clearest pos­sible shots of the space rock. The second closest ap­proach to Pluto in the past, NPR re­ports, was some bil­lion miles away.

NASA has pre­vi­ously no­ticed changes in the smudgy col­or pat­terns in the Hubble im­ages, which sug­gests that the sur­face might be more dy­nam­ic than a stat­ic frozen ice ball. But we just don’t know. Pre­vi­ous mis­sions to pho­to­graph plan­ets have pro­voked paradigm shifts in our un­der­stand­ing of them. Be­fore Mar­iner 4 took shots of Mars in 1965, we didn’t know if it har­bored plants and forests or if it was a gi­ant red desert. In the earli­er parts of the 20th cen­tury, spec­u­la­tion about the com­pos­i­tion of Mars ran wild. One 1912 Salt Lake Tribune head­line reads, “Mars Peopled By One Vast Think­ing Ve­get­able!” 

“Many pre­dic­tions have be­ing made by the sci­ence com­munity, in­clud­ing pos­sible rings, gey­ser erup­tions, and even lakes,” a NASA of­fi­cial said in a news re­lease. “Whatever we find, I be­lieve Pluto and its satel­lites will sur­pass all our ex­pect­a­tions and sur­prise us bey­ond our ima­gin­a­tion.”


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