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Will Pluto regain its planet status in July? New Horizons will send determining facts

The time is coming when New Horizons, the NASA spacecraft, will be as close as 7,750 miles, or 12,470 kilometers from the former planet Pluto.

Three and a half billion miles away, Pluto has gone from one of the planets in our solar system to being degraded back in 2006 to a, well – an identified flying object in the Kuiper belt. The Kuiper belt is a wide band of metal and ice debris in orbit around the sun. And the things is, that New Horizons may be up for detecting a cavalcade of new little planets, perhaps hundreds of them out there, even re-classifying Pluto as a planet again!

As being the last outpost before hitting the outer space and leaving our solar system, Pluto and the other companions in the Kuiper belt sits on valuable information that will help scientists find answers to the origin of our planet and how the solar system once formed.

One of the co-investigators of New Horizons is Will Grundy, and he explains what the team is up to as the new data comes in: “What you really want to get at is the origins. How did that get to be there in the first place? So, what we’re doing in the laboratory is a key piece of information that feeds into how we fully understand the processes in order to run the clock backwards to the starting point.”

At a lab at Northern Arizona University, the researchers have equipment worth a good $1 million, making it one of only three labs in the entire world with that kind of capacity. And the team uses it to the best of their capabilities, by imitating the atmosphere found on Pluto as precisely as can be.

Stephen Tegler oversees the Ice Lab at NAU, and together with his team they re-create both the vacuum of space, the temperature, which is several hundred degrees colder than room temperature, as well as the volatile ice believed to be found on the surface of Pluto. The latter is performed by adding different gases and liquid nitrogen to the mix, which is hit with light so it will match better with the data the team receives from any observations made.

As New Horizons close in on the famous little ex-planet, all the new data will be used to create a much more similar environment, making the task to determine the origin of the material making up our solar system a tiny bit easier for each data delivery.

Image: NASA