For nine years, scientists have waited for this week to arrive. New Horizons, the piano-sized space probe launched back in January 2006, makes its closest approach to the distant world Pluto on Tuesday.
Already, images sent back by New Horizons show sharp contrasts in color on Pluto's surface. Scientists now know Pluto has a very thin atmosphere. It also has at least five natural satellites.
After New Horizons makes its closest approach to Pluto, it will take about a day for data and images to be sent to Earth and processed. NASA will release those images on Wednesday. Scientists, meanwhile, look forward to learning more about a minor planet which has already revealed some intriguing features.
"Some of the newer results are the composition of the surface," said Kevin Williams, director of the Whitworth Ferguson Planetarium at Buffalo State College. "There's methane on the surface. The color of the surface is really interesting."
Just months after New Horizons was launched, Pluto made news when scientists voted to officially change its classification from 'planet' to 'minor planet.' Pluto's size - it's smaller than our Moon - led supporters of the change to pursue Pluto's demotion. Even with the curiosities now being spotted, Williams says Pluto faces no serious chance to regain promotion as one of the Solar System's major planets.
The Whitworth Ferguson Planetarium and Williamsville North High School planetarium are both hosting viewings of New Horizons' images on Wednesday evening, beginning at 7 p.m. at each venue.