NASA took a picture of Pluto: Here's why people say it's a big deal


Pluto – the runt of the solar system that got its official title of "planet" revoked in 2006 – has gotten a lot of attention this week. Here's why you should care – even if you're not a scientist.

Pluto's first visitor

Nearly a decade ago, NASA's New Horizons spacecraft took off for a 3 billion-mile trip to see what Pluto – the ice dwarf planet on the edge of our solar system – is like. (Fun fact: When New Horizons first launched, Pluto was still considered a planet, and the spacecraft is carrying some of the ashes of Clyde Tombaugh – the man who discovered it.)

It was the last planet left in the solar system to be visited by a spacecraft, and on Tuesday at 6:49 a.m. CDT New Horizons got a close-up of the mysterious planet – the spacecraft got within 7,800 miles of the Pluto's surface (that's about the distance from New York to Mumbai, India), NASA says.

The latest image of Pluto, released Tuesday morning prior to the flyby, has a resolution 4km per pixel – that's 1,000 times better than NASA's best telescopes, the Washington Post says.

Check out this comparison of the best image of the dwarf planet, before now:

The photo was sent from New Horizons Monday, and after making the flyby Tuesday morning, the spacecraft enters data-collecting mode and won't check in with mission controllers until Tuesday night, when it'll send a series of status updates that will let scientists know it survived, NASA says.

Once it reestablishes contact with scientists on Earth, it will take about 16 months for all the data to be sent back, NASA says. The hope is that the data will provide scientists with more information about the planet and its five moons.

Why this matters for those who aren't scientists

This is the first time in 26 years that people are getting their "first look" at a new planet – the last time was in 1989 when Voyager flew past Neptune, the Business Insider says. It also marks the end of the era planetary exploration, with VOX noting this is the last time anyone alive today will see a planet up close for the first time.

The data New Horizons collects could reveal more about how the solar system formed, offering "more pieces in the puzzle of how and why we all ended up" on Earth in the first place, Euro News notes.

And if the spacecraft has enough fuel leftover, it'll travel farther into the Kuiper Belt – astronomers have a hunch that the belt could hold chunks of celestial objects that are left over from our solar system's formation, the Business Insider notes.

The advanced technology behind this mission and the nuclear-powered spacecraft matters to the future of exploration – and humanity, TIME Magazine says. The ongoing effort to find out what's out there – and creating machines that are able to explore it – may one day help humanity become a multi-planet species, the magazine notes.

'New faces of scientific discovery'

The Pluto flyby itself is historic, but so are the people involved with it. MPR News' Bob Collins wrote about the significance of this mission, noting that photos taken of the scientists while New Horizons made its flyby "reveals more – at least to me – than the picture of Pluto itself."

It shows, "Excitement. Interest. Anticipation. Wonder. Young people. Women. People of color," Collins wrote. "The new faces of scientific discovery."

“We will, I’m quite confident unless we destroy ourselves as a species, move out into the solar system and beyond that,” Roseville, Minnesota, native Paul Dye, who was the last flight director of NASA's space shuttle program, told Collins years ago. “But it takes baby steps learning how to do it.”

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