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ALAN STERN: Our knowledge of Pluto is quite meager. Despite the march of technology on the ground, which has given us big telescopes and very powerful spectrometers, even the Hubble Space Telescope in Earth orbit, we know very, very little about this world.
Alan Stern leads a mission known as New Horizons. And if it succeeds, we’ll learn a whole lot more about Pluto, the most famous of the Sun’s “dwarf planets.” In fact, if everything is working as planned, the craft will begin its reconnaissance of Pluto next week.
Pluto’s only about 1400 miles wide — about two-thirds the size of the Moon. Yet it’s about three billion miles away. The combination means that even the best pictures of Pluto show nothing more than a tiny, fuzzy blob. And Pluto’s five known moons are little more than bright spots against the dark background.
New Horizons carries a suite of seven instruments to clarify our image of Pluto. Its cameras will snap thousands of pictures, while the other instruments measure the composition of Pluto and its moons, take their temperatures, and make many other observations.
For the first few months, the view won’t be much to brag about. As New Horizons draws ever closer to Pluto, though, Stern says the dwarf planet will quickly come into sharp focus:
STERN: By May, we will be delivering imagery that’s better than Hubble, and it just gets better every week from there on in until we storm the gates of Pluto on Bastille Day, July 14th.