Pluto Comes Into Clear View

Update: July 14 6:15 am

Latest just before flyby of Pluto in color posted on Twitter by Alex Parker.



It has been 85 years since the discovery of Pluto by Clyde Tombaugh in February 1930. It was but a tiny speck of light on glass photographic plates. Tombaugh systematically imaged a region of the sky in pairs of photographs. For hours on end, he studied the pairs to see if any objects shifted position. He used a blink comparator to quickly shift views of each of the plates. If any objects changed position, the blinking created the illusion of movement.

Lowell Observatory Archives


Improved View

Pluto remained a speck of light until the Hubble telescope images revealed it with some hints of varying patches of color as in this highly processed image. This was the best view until now.

NASA | ESA | M. Buie (Southwest Research Institute)


New Horizons

Humanity is finally getting a detailed closeup look at Pluto and its largest moon Charon thanks to the fly-by mission of the New Horizons spacecraft. A recent image from 8 July 2015 gives tantalizing clues to what will be revealed. Pluto is on the right in this image. As the spacecraft passes Pluto, the speed will be nearly 14 km/sec (8.7 mi/sec). A rapid sequence of events is programmed into the spacecraft computers. Control cannot be done from Earth. The round trip travel time for signals is 8 hr and 50 min. Data will be returned later.


NASA | J. Hopkins Univ. Applied Physics Laboratory | Southwest Res. Inst.


Pluto shows more detail in this image taken on 11 July 2015.

NASA | J. Hopkins Univ. Applied Physics Laboratory | Southwest Res. Inst.

Launched 19 January 2006, New Horizons departed Earth, then made a slingshot fly-by of Jupiter to gain speed and change course. The speed gained cut the travel time to Pluto by three years. It has been coasting toward this encounter with Pluto since the Jupiter fly-by in February 2008. This 2 minute video highlights parts of the journey.


More Interesting Things

Stay up to date on the status of the mission with this link to the New Horizons site. There is a link to the current position updated with each visit.

What time of day on Earth would compare to noon Pluto Time? In the link, follow Use My Location on Earth and it returns a time of day for you.

Clyde Tombaugh died in 1997. Some of his ashes are on board the spacecraft along with several other interesting stowaways. A plaque states the following:

“Interned herein are remains of American Clyde W. Tombaugh, discoverer of Pluto and the solar system’s ‘third zone’ Adelle and Muron’s boy, Patricia’s husband, Annette and Alden’s father, astronomer, teacher, punster, and friend: Clyde W. Tombaugh.”


Next For New Horizons

Over the next few weeks, the spacecraft will return data to Earth gathered during the rapid fly-by. After that, the mission sets sights on visits to Kuiper Belt Objects in the region beyond the orbits of Neptune and Pluto. KBOs are ancient icy bodies which are remnants of the early formation of the solar system. We hope to hear from New Horizons in the future as it looks at our past.

Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory

13 thoughts on “Pluto Comes Into Clear View

  1. I love that some of Clyde Tombaugh’s ashes are on board. Here’s a photo I took of his historical marker in his boyhood town of Burdett, Kansas.

    I wondered if they would be having a party in Burdett for the occasion — and they are! From the town’s website:

    You are invited to a community commemoration of the arrival of the New Horizons Space Probe containing Clyde Tombaugh’s ashes as it passes by Pluto. This event is at the Burdett Seniors, Monday, July 13 at 1:00 pm. If you would like to join us for lunch at noon, please bring a covered dish.

    Following the meal, a one-hour dvd of the 1981 historical marker dedication and interview
    with Dr. Tombaugh will be shown. If you would like to purchase a copy of the dvd, please contact Don Cloutman 620.525.6212 or Lee Musil 620.525.6710.

    Is that not wonderful? I believe I’m going to find out how much that DVD costs. I’d love to attend the lunch at the Senior Center. I’d take a peach pie and my best coleslaw. Too bad they’re 700+ miles away.

  2. When I was a little kid I took part in a science club with some friends. We never got very far and only had a few meetings. One was regarding the planets and we had a lot of fun with the name of the 7th planet from the sun, as possibly you did also, although astronomy is a much more serious endeavor for you than it ever was for us. And I always got the name of Mickey’s friend and Popeye’s nemesis mixed up with the ninth. 🙂
    Anyway, this is a great accomplishment. Brilliant scientific work. I am fortunate to have a friend who works for NASA. I cannot remember if I have mentioned him, but he works in Solar Research. Definitely a smart guy.

    • More jokes today about the Klingons around that planet 7.

      Is your friend the Dr. Hathaway who wrote the piece? It was a good article. Good to have these smart people running things, isn’t it.

      Thanks for the good comments.

      • Yes, that’s him. He was also once featured on “America’s Most Wanted”. For NASA, he invented something akin to photography’s Image Stabilization (Canon) or Vibration Reduction (Nikon) to be used by satellites for observation of planet surfaces…especially Earth…which was quite interesting to the FBI and CIA and helped to enrich NASA. The invention belongs to NASA, so he didn’t get rich, but they did give him a tidy bonus which he still drives today. 🙂

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