After temporarily going dark, NASA's New Horizons probe has begun sending back some close-up shots of Pluto and its moons, but this hasn't convinced the dwarf planet's famed nemesis to back down.
Not every day do we have the chance to see a close-up shot of an object three billion miles away. The scientific community and amateur astronomers around the world are ecstatic with the release of images from New Horizons, the NASA spacecraft sent to photograph and scan Pluto and its enigmatic moons.
The photos so far are incredible, revealing a wealth of information on the icy dwarf planet. Mountains show in crystal detail; craters, or lack thereof, tell us that Pluto is even younger than we thought - a spritely hundred million years old.
Check out the image gallery below for some of New Horizons shots:
In order: Composite image of Pluto and its largest moon, Charon, at their usual distance; close-up of Charon; Pluto, Charon, and the Earth for scale; Pluto and its now-famous "heart"; a close-up of Pluto's surface; the photos that confirmed Pluto's existence, from February 18th, 1930. From these photographs, astronomers will begin to name the various features of Pluto and its five moons - informal names already include 'Mordor' and 'Cthulhu.'
Even Neil deGrasse Tyson, noted astronomer and arch-nemesis of Pluto, had some nice words to say.
Lookin' good. But you're still a Dwarf Planet - get over it.
Neil deGrasse Tyson"
Tyson was all too happy to take the heat for the scientific community several years ago, campaigning to change the public's notions of what the word "planet" really means. Pluto, he said, just wasn't big enough - it was a dwarf planet. People blamed him for "killing" Pluto; he claims to have received threats of violence adorably illustrated in crayon, from children who grew up imaging the "nine" planets of the solar system. Most of the threats, he assumes, were in jest.
In the early 1990s, astronomers discovered the object now known as Eris in the solar system's Kuiper belt. As Eris was over 27% more massive than Pluto, this led the International Astronomical Union to define what a planet, formally, was - and Pluto didn't make the cut. To be fair, Pluto is now instead considered to be the first of a new class of celestial anomalies known as "plutoids."
Pluto, once known as "Planet X," had been theorized for years. In 1930, a young astronomer by the name of Clyde Tombaugh, tasked with comparing pairs of space photographs, noticed an object traversing the sky - see the gallery above. The rest is history; Tombaugh passed away in 2002, and the probe carries some of his ashes, which will be scattered during the fly-by.
In spite of - or perhaps because of - its controversial history, the Pluto mission has achieved worldwide attention. As with each of its high-profile missions, NASA hopes this brief moment in the spotlight further embeds the importance of scientific funding in the public's mind.
NASA has had a good year already - photos were sent back from the reaches of space that sparked peoples' imaginations; new missions were announced with enormous potential discoveries to be made. Most recently, its little rover-that-could, Opportunity, celebrated its 26th mile travelled on the Martian surface. Let's hope this trend continues, and NASA's plan pays off - instead of hearing how the space agency is able to work miracles in a constricting budget, the next generation could grow up in a world where funding for space exploration is the top priority, and the planets and moons of our solar system are field trips rather than photographs.