Friday, January 20, 2006

Pluto Finally Gets Some Respect

If you ask me, it's about time that Pluto got some respect.

We're talking the planet here, not the Disney cartoon dog. The reason the planet has been getting dissed is that there are people who no longer think it is one. (The indignity!) Pluto, you see, does not fit in with the orbital pattern of the eight other planets. Many astronomers now consider it a Trans-Neptunian Object, a decidedly unsexy term if there ever was one, based on Pluto's own orbital characteristics.

Well, the TNO crowd had to take a back seat yesterday when NASA launched the New Horizon spacecraft from Cape Canaveral, Fla., on the first mission ever to Pluto. The journey to the edge of the solar system will take nine years, cover 3 billion miles, and include a 2007 rendezvous with Jupiter, whose powerful gravitational field will slingshot it on its way to Pluto.

In addition to all the scientific gear, the New Horizon also is carrying the ashes of Clyde W. Tombaugh.

Who he?

In 1930, Tombaugh, a 23-year-old researcher at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, found Pluto during a systematic search for an elusive ninth planet, known as "Planet X," that had been predicted to exist by astronomy greats Percival Lowell and William Pickering.

Tombaugh's discovery involved painstaking comparisons of photographs of sections of sky taken several nights apart. Comparing the images, a moving object such as a planet would appear to jump from one position to another, while more distant objects such as stars would appear stationary. Tombaugh noticed such a moving object in his search, and subsequent observations showed it to be the planet we call Pluto (which is seen from its satellite Charon in the illustration above.)

The name was suggested by Venetia Burney, an 11-year-old English schoolgirl, who beat out numerous other contributors in a name-that-planet competition because she noted that Pluto, the Romam god of the underworld, was able to render himself invisible.

Cool story, eh?

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Meanwhile, we can only hope that the New Horizon spacecraft made it through the now more than 9,000 pieces of debris orbiting the Earth without getting dinged by an old washing machine or something.

An article in today's issue of the journal Science says that the space junk ranges in size and weight from 4 inches to more than 5,000 tons and the problem can only be expected to get worse.

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