UMBC scientist calls Pluto flyby a different kind of history lesson

Catonsville Times
UMBC teacher explains importance of Pluto flyby

Images from New Horizons spacecraft's historic trip to Pluto are scheduled to be released Wednesday at about 3 p.m. after nine years and 3.6 billion miles of travel.

New Horizon flew by Pluto on Tuesday at about 7:50 a.m. about 7,800 miles away from its surface.

"By completing the flyby of Pluto, we will have visited all the nine planets of the traditional solar system — the way we know it, the way we were taught it in school," said Mehdi Benna, planetary scientist at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County's Center for Space Science and Technology. "We can say we have pretty much visited every planet of the solar system, and we have a full picture of our home."

Traveling at about 30,800 mph, the spacecraft spent between eight and 10 hours flying past Pluto, which the International Astronomical Union now classifies as a dwarf planet — though the debate is ongoing.

Benna, who is also a scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, said it is difficult for scientists like him to think of Pluto as not part of the planets in the traditional solar system he grew up knowing, but, he said, the science is most important.

"It does not matter what you call it," he said. "What matters is the history that we can learn by doing the flyby of how Pluto was formed and how it actually fits in the story of the formation of the solar system."

The information collected by New Horizons will provide intelligence on the farthest parts of the solar system, allowing a better understanding of Pluto and the Kuiper Belt, a family of dwarf planets and other spacial objects at the edge of the solar system.

The key data being sought in the mission is on the origins of the solar system, Benna said.

"Pluto is part of basically a family of what we call the Kuiper Belt objects," Benna said. "By looking at these objects, basically, we're looking at the remains of the formation of the solar system. These objects actually were the building blocks of the outer planets."

“The most compelling result will be these images, these high resolution images beyond anything we were able to gather through remote observation from earth,” Benna said.

The probe also collected data and images of Charon, the largest of Pluto's five moons. Studying Charon will allow scientists to better understand how Kuiper Belt objects behave, Benna said.

New Horizons took measurements and photos, but the initial data arrived about four-and-a-half hours after its collection due to the spacecraft's distance from Earth.

Launched Jan. 19, 2006, from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, this was the first mission of NASA's New Frontiers Program and is projected to cost about $720 million. NASA will continue to receive information from the spacecraft until March 2017, and there will be a Pluto Science Conference in November 2017.

Now that NASA's mission has been successful, the organization needs to continue to return to the planets it has already visited with better technologies to gather more information, Benna said.

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