Getting to the heart of Pluto

The "Love Note". One of the first images from New Horizons spacecraft to Earth. Photo by NASA

The “Love Note” – one of the first images from New Horizons spacecraft to Earth
Photo by NASA

Getting to the heart of Pluto
Story adapted from NASA and Wikipedia by Patti-Lea Ryan
Edited by Nila Gopaul
Level 3

What is Pluto anyway?
A planet?
A plutoid?
Or what?

NASA had many questions about Pluto and beyond.

History
Pluto was discovered in 1930
by astronomer Clyde Tombaugh.
Pluto is small and frozen.
It is three billion kilometres from the sun.
It is the smallest “planet”.
Even smaller than Earth’s moon.
It takes Pluto 248 earth years to orbit the sun.
And, NASA only had blurry images of it.

Getting to the heart of Pluto
Scientists wanted to learn more about Pluto … and beyond.
To have clear images of its surface,
mountains, rocks and atmosphere.
In 2001, NASA started putting plans together
for a new spacecraft.

New Horizons spacecraft
In 2006, the New Horizons spacecraft
was sent to find out more.
NASA had already sent spacecrafts
to every planet from Mercury to Neptune.

After nine and one half years, on January 15, 2015,
New Horizons finally began to approach Pluto.
Then it flew 12,500 kilometres
above the surface of Pluto on July 14, 2015.
It only had one chance to fly by
and send photos back to Earth.
But then the screen went blank.
Everyone waited to see what would happen.
Suddenly, it came back on again.
Everyone was relieved.

Scientists react when the images of the Pluto Flyby started coming in from the New Horizons spacecraft. Photo by NASA HQ

Scientists react when images of Pluto started coming in after the screen went blank.
Photo by NASA HQ

New Horizons did a great job!
NASA starting receiving clear photos quickly.
The scientists were overjoyed.
One of the first photos of Pluto revealed
a polar ice cap.
It is in the shape of a heart.
The photo went viral very fast.

New Horizon’s long journey is not over.
The spacecraft has now gone deeper in the Kuiper Belt.
It will keep sending images back to Earth
for a long time.
There are one or two small ice-worlds
billions of miles past Neptune’s orbit
that NASA wants to learn more about.
They are plutoids called Eris (EER-is)
and Makemake (MAH-kee-MAH-kee).

Pluto’s heart-shaped ice cap
has been named the Tombaugh Regio.
This honours the man who discovered it.

Links:

  1. For more photos from the New Horizons spacecraft, click here.
  2. To find out more about Pluto, the Kuiper Belt and the solar system, click here.

Vocabulary:

  1. Astromoner: a person who studies stars and objects in space.
  2. Blurry: unclear, fuzzy.
  3. Spacecraft: a vehicle that travels in space.
  4. Polar Ice Cap: ice covered north and south poles of a planet.
  5. Went Viral: Images became very popular by passing quickly from person to person.
  6. Kuiper Belt: a band of thousands of small, icy objects that orbit the sun beyond Neptune.
  7. Plutoids: dwarf planets farther out in space than Neptune.
  8. Honours: gives respect.