MARIETTA — Local astronomers are rejoicing at the images of Pluto taken by a NASA spacecraft Tuesday morning that show a new clarity to the makeup of the dwarf planet.
Eric Smith of Marietta, a lecturer who teaches astronomy at Kennesaw State University, called it a landmark achievement.
“It’s the first time we’ve actually seen Pluto as more than just a speck. In previous images, it looks more like a star. You can’t see surface photos and you can’t make out its size,” Smith said.
The United States is now the only nation to visit every single planet in the solar system. Pluto was No. 9 in the lineup when the New Horizons spacecraft departed Cape Canaveral, Florida, on Jan. 19, 2006, but was demoted seven months later to dwarf status.
The $720 million mission that took nearly a decade, came to a peak at about 7:49 a.m. Tuesday when it did a flyby of Pluto, about 3 billion miles from Earth. New Horizons took high definition images of Pluto that Smith said will help scientists learn about its history.
“We’re doing this because this is some of the earliest material of the solar system. Learning about Pluto gives us a view of structures that old. We’ve seen asteroids and they’re also very, very old, but they’re more like rocks. Pluto is much more icy. We’re hoping to learn about its atmosphere, its geography and how the object is structured because we don’t know any of this. Pluto has been a complete mystery,” Smith said.
Jennice Ozment, a Walton High School honors chemistry teacher and former astronomy teacher, said she saw the first images of Pluto taken Tuesday.
“The detail in the first image is already so spectacular, and they’re talking about having more images in the coming days. It’s so much more complex than what we thought it was. Just from the craters on it we can tell it has led a rough life,” she said.
Ozment pointed out that the trip to Pluto happened on the 50-year anniversary of the Mariner 4’s flyby of Mars that yielded the first close-up pictures of the red planet.