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Pluto calling : New Horizon zooms

The fastest spacecraft ever launched began the first full day of its 3-billion mile journey to Pluto, where it will study the last unexplored planet and the mysterious icy area that surrounds it.

india Updated: Jan 21, 2006 17:03 IST

The fastest spacecraft ever launched began the first full day of its 3-billion mile journey to Pluto, where it will study the last unexplored planet and the mysterious icy area that surrounds it.

The New Horizons spacecraft blasted off aboard an Atlas V rocket on Thursday afternoon in a spectacular start to the $700 million mission. Despite the speed it can reach 36,000 mph, it will take 9 1/2 years to reach Pluto and the frozen, sunless reaches of the solar system.

“It looked beautiful,” said Ralph McNutt Jr. of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, one of the mission's scientists. The 480-kilogram spacecraft was loaded with seven instruments that will photograph the surfaces of Pluto and its large moon, Charon, and analyse Pluto's atmosphere.

Two of the cameras, Alice and Ralph, are named for the bickering couple from TV’s The Honeymooners.

New Horizons also contained some of the ashes of Clyde Tombaugh, the astronomer who discovered Pluto in 1930. His widow, Patricia Tombaugh, was in tears as she watched the launch. “It was so beautiful and we've waited so long,” said Tombaugh.

NASA had postponed the lift-off for two straight days because of wind gusts at the launch pad and a power outage at the spacecraft’s control centre in Maryland. Pluto is the solar system’s most distant planet and the brightest body in a zone known as the Kuiper Belt, which is made up of thousands of icy, rocky objects, including tiny planets whose development was stunted for unknown reasons.

Scientists believe studying those ‘planetary embryos’ can help them understand how planets were formed. Some astronomers question whether Pluto is technically a planet. Pluto is a celestial oddball an icy dwarf unlike the rocky planets of Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars and the gaseous planets of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.

“We’re realising just how much there is to the deep, outer solar system,” said Alan Stern, the mission’s principal investigator. “I think it’s exciting that textbooks have to be rewritten, over and over,” he added.

First Published: Jan 21, 2006 17:03 IST