Pluto is coming closer and closer. As the piano-sized array of electronics, hardware and software soars through interplanetary space at  nearly 36,000 an hour, what was long known as the ninth planet, and at one time the former Planet-X, looms on the inner edge of the outer solar system.

Pluto is coming closer and closer. As the piano-sized array of electronics, hardware and software soars through interplanetary space at nearly 36,000 mph, what was long known as the ninth planet, and at one time the former Planet-X, looms on the inner edge of the outer solar system.


It has been four years and one month since New Horizons lifted from Cape Canaveral, and forever ripped away from the gravitational clutch of Earth and the dedicated men and women of NASA who put it together. Humankind’s first mission to Pluto still has five years to go.


Pluto was discovered in 1930 and hailed as the ninth planet. This distant world, barely brighter than magnitude +14, is just visible as a faint speck of light in a large backyard telescope on an excellent night. Its minuscule disc is barely perceptible to the professional astronomer; even the Hubble Space Telescope, above the turbulent and dusty atmosphere of Earth, has shown no more than indistinct spots of color and contrast. 


Southwest Research Institute, however, recently released results of four years of study of these images, mapping the entire planet with its blurry splotches. White areas are suspected to be areas of nitrogen frost. 


In 2007 New Horizons received a gravity boost as it passed Jupiter.


Reclassified as a “dwarf planet,” Pluto remains close in the hearts of space aficionados.


In recent years, astronomers have uncovered over 1,000 other dwarf planets beyond Pluto. One, named Eris, is slightly larger. Others that have been named include Makemake, Haumea, Sedna and Quaor. These objects roam vast area of the outer solar system known as the Kuiper Belt. They are believed to be leftovers from the era when the inner planets formed. This zone extends from the orbit of Neptune, 2.7 billion miles out, to about 5.1 billion miles.


Another region even farther out and yet still within the gravitational pull of the sun is the hypothesized “Oort Cloud.” Believed to be encompassing the solar system in all directions, this immense region is the domain of comets. The region is speculated to extend as far as a light year from the sun (a quarter of the way to Alpha Centauri, our nearest neighboring star system.


Dust-laden icy, dormant comet bodies creep along, occasionally being tugged sunward.


After a path lasting many decades to thousands of years, the comets roar to life passing close in the heat of the sun, as the ice melts and gases are released. Very rare ones become bright enough to startle and amaze us, with glorious tails pushed back by the pressure of sunlight.


Valentine’s Day treat: If Sunday’s evening twilight is clear, use binoculars immediately after sunset and scan very low in the west-southwest. You may be able to see the bright planet Venus, and Jupiter nearly as bright, just above it, and close to the right, a very slender crescent moon. Venus and Jupiter are closet on the 16th (a half degree); the moon will be high above them.


First-quarter moon is on Feb. 21.


For more about Pluto and the New Horizons mission online, see http://pluto.jhuapl.edu.


You may contact the writer at pbecker@wayneindependent.com.


Keep looking up!