Pluto The New Horizons
Voyager, Sojourner, Spirit, Opportunity, Galileo, Viking.
These were all unmanned space missions launched by the NASA over the last fifty years in order to explore various regions and planets of our Solar System. However, none is more recent than the New Horizons, the space probe that the past 14th July finally overflew Pluto, the dwarf planet that still constitutes a mystery for the astronomers due to its remoteness. It was because of this that it took the space probe nearly 10 years to reach its destination, having been launched on 19th January 2006.
Initially, the plan was to send two space probes with a few daysÕ difference in order to explore PlutoÕs two hemispheres, but this proved impossible due to the lack of funds, and so, NASA was forced to design a single probe in a way that made it impossible for it to land on the planet (which was the most desirable option) as it carried scarce fuel, which was only to be used to readjust directions, and had no way of slowing down.
However, these characteristics werenÕt a detriment while making the actual journey, and that is because the space probe was able to travel at high speed by putting into practice the manoeuvre of gravitational assist. This consists of taking advantage of a planetÕs gravity in order to accelerate the space probe, thus saving time and energy, which are crucial when wanting to reach a distant destination in the minimum time possible.
And so it did. It is still very soon to rush to conclusions, as the New Horizons will be sending information back to Earth for some year and a half, but it has already made some interesting discoveries, such as the existence of some type of polar icecap of extremely pure carbon monoxide (while the rest of ice on the planet is of nitrogen and methane) and the fact that its atmosphere was larger than previously thought.
Additionally, the New Horizons has also been able to provide the first photograph of Pluto and its largest moon, Charon, in high definition, as well as photographing ice mountains that surpass 3,500 metres of altitude and confirming that it has five satellites. All of these, like the planet itself, bear names from Greek and Roman mythology (Pluto is the Roman equivalent of Hades, son of the titan Cronus a lord of the Underworld): Charon, who carried the souls of the recently deceased through the rivers Styx and Acheron; Styx, the river that bound the gods and on which the most sacred oaths were sworn; Nyx, the primordial goddess of the night; Kerberos, the three-headed hellhound who guarded the entrance to the Underworld; and Hydra, a serpent-like monster that grew two more heads for each that was cut off (this moon, by the way, is the smallest and has the shape of a potato).
Counting the New Horizons, for the first time in history the human kind is exploring three planets at the same time: Mars (Opportunity), Ceres (Dawn) and Pluto (New Horizons); and it is thanks to the latter that the objective set by the NASA to explore the main planets in our Solar System has finally been reached (though dwarf planet Eris remains yet unexplored). Considering that the space probes Rosetta and Philae are currently exploring the comet P67/Churyumov-Gerasimenko (informally known as Chury) we can conclude that this year 2015 is and will be full of exciting astronomic discoveries.
By Raquel Alem‡n Cruz (16)
24 julio, 2015