Hello Pluto! Exploring New Horizons

This coming Tuesday a human made space craft will visit Pluto. It is as important as the first moon landing

On July 20, 1969, earthlings visited their closest neighbour, the moon. That day was definitely the start of a new age for science. This curiosity exhibited by upright primates on a non-descript planet in a non-descript galaxy has continued. And this year marks another exciting event in space exploration.

On July 14, this coming Tuesday, a human made space craft will visit Pluto, the erstwhile planet, current dwarf planet. This is a world that is 3 billion miles away, in what is known as the Kuiper Belt (a disc of comets and small planets beyond Neptune), the farthest planet humans have ever seen and studied and the first Kuiper Belt object to be visited.

The New Horizons project will send back data and pictures of Pluto that will amaze and surprise us but will also increase our knowledge about our Solar System and its beginnings.

The Kuiper Belt is the largest structure in the Solar System, covering an area 3 times bigger than that between the Sun and Neptune. That's immense! And none of it has been visited before by us. Pluto is the largest object in the Belt and like other Kuiper Belt objects it is made primarily of rock and ice. Discovered in 1930, Pluto has 5 moons. And on July 14, the New Horizons probe will be the first spacecraft to fly by it and its moons.

The data collected by New Horizons as it flies by will be complemented by data from other sources. NASA is aiming some of its most powerful space observatories at Pluto at the same time. The Cassini spacecraft currently orbiting Saturn will also take its image.

The New Horizons probe was launched in January 2006 and has been crossing the Solar System for 9 years to reach this new frontier. On July 9, as it approached, it sent this picture of Pluto and its moon Charon.

Image courtesy NASA

As is nears it target, the probe aims to understand the formation of the Pluto system and the Kuiper Belt, as well as the transformation of the early Solar System. It will try to understand what comprises of the Planet's atmosphere, its environment and what it is made of. A fascinating fact though is that this probe is 9 year old technology. It probably has less capacity than your cell phone right now. Think about that!

So let's take some time away from the usual political bickering, wondering who is fasting and who is not and join the rest of the world as we, the humans, cross another milestone. You can follow the progress here and NASA provides more information, even live coverage here encouraging everyone and I mean everyone to become a part of this event.

This is as important as the first moon landing. The tragedy is that we have forgotten how exciting that was. Let's inculcate that excitement within us and join the rest of humanity in this celebration of human achievement.

Saima Baig

Saima Baig is a Karachi-based environmental economist, climate change consultant and a freelance writer. Follow her on Twitter

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