Earthlings will get an up close and personal look at the Pluto system as the New Horizons spacecraft is nearing the end of its 3 billion mile journey to the recently downgraded planet and its moons. The New Horizons probe is the first to travel to the Kuiper Belt where it will take pictures of Pluto and Charon.
Interesting research paper topics are: why is Pluto not a planet anymore, the New Horizons’ Pluto mission and the spacecraft’s Pluto images.
Why is Pluto not a planet?
A good research paper topic is to discuss the new criteria for what constitutes a planet in our solar system. In 1930, American astronomer Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto, the last of the solar system’s nine planets. It was called Pluto, after the Roman god of the underworld, but the PL was named after Percival Lowell, an astronomer and supporter of the search for the new planet before his death in 1916. However, as telescopes became more powerful, Pluto’s moon Charon was discovered, as well as several other moons, and the orbits of the many bodies were mapped, it became evident that Pluto did not act like an ordinary planet.
Pluto’s orbit took it inside the orbit of Neptune. And the discovery of other Kuiper Belt objects Sedna, Quaoar, Makemake, and Eris, as well as Ceres, the largest object in the asteroid belt, would have meant adding many more “planets” to our original nine. In 2006, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) decided to amend its definition of a planet, which downgraded Pluto to a “dwarf planet.” Commenting at the time, the IAU’s president of planetary systems science Prof. Iwan Williams said: “By the end of the decade, we would have had 100 planets, and I think people would have said ‘my goodness, what a mess they made back in 2006,’” reported Paul Rincon in “Why is Pluto no longer a planet?” posted on BBC.com July 13, 2015.
Why visit something so far away?
Another term paper topic is to chart a NASA mission from conception to completion. The idea of sending a spacecraft to Pluto began in 1989 when planetary scientist Alan Stern suggested a mission to the farthest planet. But budgets, will and time were not on his side. NASA didn’t want to spend the money, few scientists were eager to learn more about Pluto, and with the time needed to get to Pluto (roughly 10 years), plans would have to start soon or else Pluto would be too far away from Earth to make it feasible.
But in 1992, “What really put this over the top,” Stern said in “Pluto: Explored: New Horizons Is Very Close to Its Long-Awaited Rendezvous with the Dwarf Planet,” by Christopher Crockett in Science News, June 27, 2015, “was the discovery of the Kuiper Belt.” Now the Kuiper Belt’s most famous resident suddenly became a more interesting destination. After the discovery of hundreds of icy bodies in the Kuiper Belt, the National Academy of Sciences reported in 2003 that sending a spacecraft to Pluto and Charon “should be NASA’s highest priority for medium-size missions in the decade 2003-2013,” reported Crockett.
New Horizons: farthest and fastest
Launched on January 19, 2006, the New Horizons spacecraft began a nine-and-a-half year journey over 3 billion miles. The size of a piano, New Horizons is traveling at 36,000 miles an hour, the fastest craft humans have sent into space. Costing $723 million, the mission will take pictures of the surface of Pluto and Charon, learn about Pluto’s atmosphere, view impacts on Pluto’s surfaces and investigate charged particles coming from the sun. Signals from New Horizon to Earth will take four and a half hours one way, and it will take a year to download all the information coming from the probe. After Pluto, New Horizons will move on to explore other Kuiper Belt objects.
Already, New Horizons has taken some extraordinary pictures. On July 12, it took a photo that “reveals linear features that may be cliffs, as well as a circular feature that could be an impact crater. Just starting to rotate into view on the left side of the image is the bright heart-shaped feature that will be seen in more detail during New Horizons’ closest approach,” reported in “One Million Miles to Go; Pluto Is More Intriguing than Ever,” July 12, 2015, on the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory website.
For more information, check out Questia’s library on Astronomy.
What other places in our solar system would you like scientists to explore next? Tell us in the comments.