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The Nation

Shining a Light on the Dark Planet

NASA's New Horizons craft is prepared for a nine-year, 3-billion-mile trip to mysterious Pluto, to be followed by a close look at the Kuiper Belt.

January 15, 2006|John Johnson Jr. | Times Staff Writer

Astronomer Clyde Tombaugh could not have known how fitting it was to call his new planet Pluto, after the Roman god of the underworld.

In the 76 years since Tombaugh discovered the solar system's ninth planet, Pluto has remained an enigma -- a shrouded phantom lurking in the dark recesses of the solar system.

Three billion miles from Earth, the diminutive ice world is so distant that even the Hubble Space Telescope can produce only a hazy image of an object resembling a chewed-on tennis ball.

Now, Pluto's time to shine has finally arrived.

On Tuesday, NASA is scheduled to launch its $700-million New Horizons spacecraft from Cape Canaveral in Florida on a nearly nine-year journey to the ninth planet.

It will be the space agency's first spacecraft since 1977 to be dispatched to an unexplored planet, and will complete NASA's grand tour of all nine planets in the solar system.

"This is the capstone of the missions to the planets that NASA has led since the 1960s," said Alan Stern, an astrophysicist with the Southwest Research Institute in Colorado, who is the principal investigator for the New Horizons mission.

NASA Administrator Michael D. Griffin said: "In that sense, this mission truly marks the end of the beginning."

For planetary scientists, understanding distant Pluto with its unique composition of rock and ice is key to answering questions about how planets formed and why they formed where they did.

"Pluto is a treasure trove of scientific information waiting to be discovered," said Andrew Dantzler, director of NASA's Solar System Division.

New Horizons, designed and built at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, should also broaden scientists' understanding of the distant Kuiper Belt, located beyond Neptune at the fringes of the solar system. Once thought to be a sparse junkyard of castoff planetary parts, the Kuiper Belt is now thought to contain as many as 100,000 miniature worlds, making it more crowded than the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

And what lies beyond?

New Horizons will try to find out.

Since Pluto's discovery, the planet's story has been one of enduring mystery.

After the discovery of Neptune in 1846, astronomers believed that odd perturbations in the orbits of Uranus and Neptune could not be entirely explained except by the presence of yet another massive planet somewhere beyond Neptune. They named that body Planet X.

The astronomical mystery became a cause celebre. "I believe in the new planet," Mark Twain wrote. "I hope it is going to be named after me; I should just love it if I can't have a constellation."

Twain was long dead by the time the answer came.

As it turned out, much of what astronomers thought they knew about Planet X was wrong. It wasn't big. In fact, there are seven moons in the solar system that would be larger than the planet. And it didn't cause the perturbations in Uranus' and Neptune's orbits that were the primary reason for believing there was a ninth planet.

Scientists eventually determined the perturbations were the result of inaccurate observations.

Tombaugh didn't know any of this in 1929, when he began scouring the night sky for Planet X. He used the 13-inch telescope at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Ariz., where he worked as a lowly research assistant.

For months, he snapped pictures of the sky and compared the pictures to see if anything was moving, which would be evidence of a relatively close object orbiting the sun. The task was daunting. Each photographic plate contained at least 40,000 stars.

Tombaugh's discovery won him world renown -- and presented a puzzle. What to call the new object? Early suggestions included Atlas, Artemis, Vulcan and Minerva.

The name Pluto came from 11-year-old Venetia Burney in Oxford, England. Her reasoning was that it must be very dark where the planet was.

She was correct. From the surface of Pluto, the sun is just another star in a perpetual night.

The more scientists learned about Pluto and its neighborhood, the stranger it seemed.

For one thing, the planet's orbit is highly eccentric. From 1979 to 1999, it was closer to the sun than Neptune. At other times during its 248-year journey around the sun, it's much farther away.

It also rotates in the opposite direction from most of the other planets. Its eccentric orbit means Pluto is likely to have the most complex seasons of any planet, even if its surface temperature never gets much above minus 387 degrees Fahrenheit.

Pluto belongs to its own planetary class, distinct from the inner rocky planets (Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars) and the outer gas giants (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune).

Some scientists no longer believe Pluto is a planet; they say it's more like a comet or asteroid.

That argument gained weight last year, when a team led by Caltech astronomer Michael Brown announced the discovery of an object in the Kuiper Belt larger than Pluto.

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