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History of Pluto Exploration Essay

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Updated: Dec 3rd, 2019

Pluto has long been considered as the ninth planet from the sun. It is the sixth planet from the earth. It is so far away that for many centuries, astronomers and scientists were not able to study this planet as extensively as they would have wanted.

But because of the rapid improvement in technology whether in computers, telescope design or even the use of spacecraft to penetrate deep space, more light has been shed on this far flung planet of the solar system. In just one hundred years much has been known about Pluto than in all the years combined after Galileo pointed his telescope to the stars.

Since the time that astronomers were able to use very powerful telescopes and peer into the night sky, they were dumbfounded by a scientific phenomenon. They observed that the orbit of Neptune did not quite follow the rules of Newtonian physics. According to the director of New York City’s Hayden Planetarium, “Scientists saw the path of Neptune around the sun, and they saw that it wasn’t quite following Newton’s laws of gravity.

And so either Newton was wrong … or there was some other mass out there that they hadn’t cataloged yet that was influencing the motion of Neptune” (Cruz, 2009, p.1). So from that day forward until the discovery of the mysterious mass orbiting behind Neptune astronomers labeled this heavenly body as planet X (Cruz, 2009, p.1). It only required a dedicated astronomer with the right tools to discover what is behind this phenomenon.

The Discovery of Pluto

In 1930 an American astronomer made a commitment to discover the explanation as to why Neptune behaved that way. His name was Clyde Tombaugh and he was working at the Lowell Observatory (Brown & Thomas, year, p.1). He was not even the chief astronomer but a mere observing assistant in the facility made famous by astronomer Percivall Lowell (Brown & Thomas, year, p.1). But he was determined to discover planet X.

After a year of painstaking research and the long nights of studying photographic plates, Tombaugh had his eureka moment on February 18, 1930 when he was comparing two plates taken one month before and by flicking the plates from one plate to the other Tombaugh hopes to spot the difference (Brown & Thomas, year, p.1).

As he was repeating the process he saw a tiny speck in the photo – a small object a few millimeters in size but that was the planet that he was looking for. His discovery changed the way people see the solar system (Brown & Thomas, year, p.1). Tombaugh on the other hand received the recognition he richly deserved.

Far, Far, Away

There is no need to point out that Pluto is the farthest in the solar system. It is estimated to be thirty times smaller than Mercury and therefore it is a planet that is smaller the earth’s moon. It is also a planet that is one over five hundredth the size of planet earth. These facts and new discoveries forced many to initiate a debate whether it is proper to call Pluto a planet or a comet or piece of rock that orbits the sun.

When it comes to Pluto there are more questions than answers. Scientists are also fascinated by its different behavior as compared to other eight planets that populate the solar system. For instance, in 1979 it was first discovered that Pluto only gets to complete its orbit after more than 200 years of movement around the sun.

But there is more, this planet has a highly elliptical orbit that once in its two-hundred year orbit it inserts itself between Uranus and Neptune (NASA Science, ) It is an unsettling fact for some but a source of fascination for others.

The aberration in the orbit path may occur once in two centuries but it is not rectified as quickly as one will expect. As mentioned the shift in orbit was noticed in 1979 but it was only “corrected” in February 11, 1999 – almost 20 years of staying within the orbits of Uranus and Neptune.

Due to its distance and position relative to the sun, astronomers always associate Pluto with ice and a frigid climate. It is also easy to dismiss it as noting more than a chunk of ice and rock (Cowen, 2010, pl1). But recent developments suggest that there is more to Pluto than what scientists believe is possible.

Marc Buie a planetary scientist discovered that Pluto has undergone some dramatic surface changes that prompted him and other scientists to conclude that it has become redder (Cowen, 2010, p.1). Buie and even his colleagues do not have an explanation why Pluto is undergoing significant changes. At first they thought that it was due to elevated levels of ultra-violet frays from the sun. Now they have abandoned this explanation because they believe that the sun’s rays were constant at the time that Pluto showed these changes.

They are more likely to go with the second explanation. They said that Pluto’s distance from the sun coupled with a 248 year orbit around it is the most likely culprit for the color change of the planet’s surface (Cowen, 2010, p.1). This has another major implication. It means that there is more to this planet aside from its being the outermost planet in the solar system.

Scientists must continue to probe and study Pluto and not be embroiled in the current controversy whether to change its designation as the 9th planet from the sun or just a chunk of ice orbiting behind Neptune just like the other large pieces of rock that can be seen in the Kuiper Belt but are deemed to be of less importance.

This sentiment is echoed by many astronomers and scientists all over the world. According to Tyson, the director of Hayden Planetarium in New York City, it is only Americans who are obsessed with Pluto but the rest of the world in his estimation are not that interested in this planet. Fran Bagenal a graduate student at MIT said that sending a mission to study Pluto in depth was seen as an uninteresting way to spend tax-payers money to force NASA to deploy a space prove over that region in the solar system.

In fact, it is the only planet in the solar system that has not been visited by any unmanned spacecraft from the earth (NASA Science, 1999, p.1). It was pointed out that even the Hubble Space Telescope was not even programmed to go near it and take images close range. According to scientists the Hubble Space Telescope was only able to take pictures of the largest features of the planet’s surface (NASA Science, 1999, p.1). This has to change especially in the light of recent controversy regarding Pluto’s nomenclature.

While there are many who are not keen in spending millions of dollars to study Pluto there are those who wanted to give it a try. One of them is Alan Stern who since 1989 were badgering his scientists friends to petition NASA to explore Pluto.

He was fascinated by the fact that Pluto resembles an overgrown comet rather than an undersized planet ( ) He is also interested to know more as to a phenomenon easily observable from the earth and it is the fact that solar winds blows gases from the surface of Pluto in the same way as seeds are blown from a dandelion flower () Stern also pointed out that Pluto is covered with frozen gases but these gases evaporate every time Pluto’s orbit is near the sun.

This evaporated gases immediately forms an atmosphere but its gravity is so weak that a significant portion of that atmosphere is blown away (Guterl, 2006). But most importantly Stern argues that the significance of a more detailed study of Pluto is to reveal the mysteries that lie at the edge of the solar system (Guterl, 2006). It is indeed a project that needs to be started soon.

Conclusion

It was not only the 2oth century that an astronomer was able to discover the planet Pluto and designated it as the ninth planet from the sun. It is located in the outer edges of the solar system and explains why it is frigid, covered with frozen gas and requires 248 years to complete one orbit.

Its distance and size may be the real reason why NASA is not going to invest millions of dollars to send a spacecraft and study it in detail. But there is more to know about Pluto. It is time to invest more in studying this fascinating planet. The more scientists probe into Pluto the more they will understand the mysteries that lie behind the solar system.

Works Cited

Brown, M. & Thomas P. . 2010. International Astronomic Union. Web.

Cowen, Ron. Pluto Blushes Red. 2010. ScienceNews. Web.

Cruz, Gilbert. . 21 Time. 2009. Web.

Guterl, Fred. . 2006. Discover. Web.

NASA Science. . 1999. NASA Science. Web.

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IvyPanda. 2019. "History of Pluto Exploration." December 3, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/pluto/.

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