Imagine a road trip of nearly 3,000,000,000 (three billion) miles, lasting nearly a decade, with no pit stops, so you have to carry all your fuel in a vehicle the size of a baby grand piano. If you were to phone home after all that time, your message would take four and a half hours to get to Earth and another four and a half hours for the reply. That’s pretty much the state of things with NASA’s New Horizons probe rapidly closing in on the tiny world of Pluto. A culmination of work that began in the 1970s, New Horizons blasted off from Cape Canaveral January 19, 2006, as the Burney Team (named for then-11-year-old Venetia Burney, who suggested the name Pluto after its discovery in 1930), watched and cheered. They would spend the next decade tracking New Horizons on its incredible journey. Based on the spectacular Jupiter photos it sent back in early 2007, astronomers expect Pluto’s close-ups to be --equally amazing. On Tuesday, July 14, 2015, the probe will begin an intense 9-day study of Pluto as it flies within 8,000 miles of the tiny world with its five moons: Charon, Hydra, Nix, Kerberos and tiny, tiny Styx, so small it can’t be accurately measured yet.
In the 1840s, the stage was set for Pluto’s discovery, when French mathematician Urbain Le Verrier discovered the eighth planet of Neptune via mathematical calculations of its effect on the orbit of then-known planet Uranus. By the late 19th century, astronomers used these same types of calculations to posit the existence of a ninth planet to account for variations in the orbits of both Uranus and Neptune. In 1894, wealthy amateur astronomer Percival Lowell launched an extensive search for this mysterious ninth world, even founding Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona in 1906. However, Lowell passed away in 1916, without any official confirmation of discovery. In 1926, amateur astronomer Clyde Tombaugh, a self-taught expert in optics and mathematics from a poor Kansas farm family, built his first telescope out of spare parts, grinding his own lenses and mirrors. A perfectionist with amazing powers of observation, he made detailed drawings of the planets Mars and Jupiter that so impressed the Lowell astronomers they invited him to join the team. In 1930, after a year of eyeballing who knows how many photographic plates dotted with thousands of tiny points of light, he spotted evidence of one of those dots in motion.
The observatory confirmed the object in motion with further photographs and officially notified Harvard College Observatory, March 13, 1930. Pluto was officially named a few days later, March 24. Since then, Pluto has remained a tough scientific nut to crack, guarding its secrets across an unimaginable distance. However, on July 14 and the nine heady days that follow, New Horizons will begin sending back high definition photos of the tiny world and its largest moon, Charon, along with streams of scientific data. News and science websites will post the first close-ups of the elusive Pluto, and teams of scientists will spend years analyzing hard drives full of information. As for New Horizons, the journey will not end with Pluto, and space beyond is far from empty. It will continue on until it eventually encounters the Kuiper Belt, a ring of icy worldlets, asteroids, comets and debris that surrounds the entire solar system much like the rings that surround Saturn, sending back data and photos. Barring any misfortune, it will travel on to the Oort Cloud and beyond, as new generations of scientists pore over new streams of photos and data. Because it’s just plain old human nature to wonder what else is out there, so far away, in the infinite reaches of space.