That Great Book Which is Ever Before Our Eyes
After ten years of hurtling through space, NASA's New Horizons spacecraft approached Pluto and its moons this week, sending home stunning photographs of the icy dwarf planet. Over the next six months the vessel will continue accumulating data that astronomers hope will reveal some of the secrets concealed by this rocky world at the limits of our solar system. Before the spacecraft began its 3 billion-mile trek in January 2006, NASA scientists maintained that this mission - the exploration of the Kuiper Belt (the farthest, oldest portion of the solar system where Pluto resides) - as the highest priority in space travel.
IImage of Pluto from the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) aboard NASA's New Horizons spacecraft, taken on July 13, 2015 when the spacecraft was 476,000 miles (768,000 kilometers) from the surface. The bright feature in the bottom portion of the planet has been coined "the heart".
Image Credit: NASA/APL/SwRI
Much what we knew about Pluto (and hundreds of asteroids) is due to Clyde Tombaugh. As a 24 year-old at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, the farmer-turned-astronomer discovered Pluto in 1930 and sparked what could be considered the modern push to planetary exploration. Tombaugh spent his entire life gazing towards the heavens, and built over thirty telescopes to better understand the cosmos. (His first telescope, a store-bought Sears model, proved insufficient rather quickly.) He died in 1997, just shy of his 91st birthday. Tombaugh was the first American to discover a planet in our solar system, and was honored for his work by becoming the first person whose remains, included in the New Horizons craft, were launched into the stars beyond our corner of the universe. After getting a close-up look at Pluto, he will continue charting new worlds beyond our galactic neighborhood.
Clyde Tombaugh: Discoverer of Pluto (1906-1997) Image Credit: NASA