The surface of Pluto… which is known as a “dwarf planet,” is illuminating how little we may actually know about the universe and the early beginnings of the solar system.

NASA’s New Horizons Mission

The latest news comes to us from the edge of the galaxy as NASA’S New Horizons space mission, has flown past Pluto at speeds of up to 30-thousand miles per hour… sending back never before seen data and images.

Paula Apsell, the Senior Executive Producer of WGBH’s NOVA spoke with Morning Edition host Bob Seay and says this is a huge step in the astronomical community.

NOVA, produced by WGBH, is airing a special called, "Chasing Pluto" Wednesday at 9 p.m. on PBS. In an unusual move, the program producers have dedicated the last few minutes of the program  to include the latest updated information about the space mission, and will edit it into the program.

Apsell is stationed in an auditorium across the street from the John Hopkins University Applied Physics lab where scientists are awaiting data from the mission to transmit or “phone home” images back to the team working on the mission.

New Horizons sailed past Pluto early Tuesday morning and it took several hours before the first images were pinging into the lab.

“It was a fantastic day with two huge events occurring: The first was a picture of Pluto taken from 500-thousand miles away from Earth…. with clearly defined features, dark patches, craters, snow and ice and a huge two-toned heart.”

She says, “the second event happened Tuesday evening at 8:53 p.m. the New Horizons space craft sent a beacon or signal telling the team of scientists that everything was ok.”

That’s because there was a slight chance that any particle in space could have struck the craft, possibly causing irreversible damage or worse halting the mission.

Exploration Of Pluto

“We have explored through NASA all of the 8 planets of our solar system and now this is the 9th, Pluto, and the one that a lot of people are the most fond of,” Apsell said. “When you really think of the enormous accomplishment of that, that we have sent space probes to every large objects, every planet, in our solar system and the tremendous amount that we’ve learned and the progress that has been made.”

The piano-sized spacecraft was an innovation like no other, containing 7 instruments and only emitting 200 watts, enough to power a coffee maker. Apsell says that New Horizons will provide 500 times more information than Mariner did when it landed on Mars 50 years ago.

The spacecraft has done some sightseeing on its trip 3 billion mile trek to Pluto, taking 9 ½ years as it flew by Jupiter and eventually passing Pluto at 30,000 miles per hour.

Mission Goals

Even though Pluto is the farthest from the sun, it has stayed in the spotlight for quite some time as the crowd favorite was demoted by the International Astronomical Union to a dwarf planet in 2006. The IAU says the basis for this demotion is that Pluto didn’t meet two of the requirements that were seen as necessary in classifying it as a full-fledged planet. The first is that the planet was not the largest object on its orbital belt.

“It was perceived no longer as one of the largest objects in the Kuiper belt, which is this huge part of the solar system made of icy objects and Eris, another Kuiper belt object was seen as larger than Pluto,” said Apsell “Now Pluto has been measured by New Horizons more accurately and it seems as though Pluto may be a little larger than Eris.”

However, Pluto still fails the second half of the test as Pluto is unable to pass through some of the objects on the Kuiper Belt. However, Apsell argues that this information is up for interpretation.

“I think there will be some very, very interesting sparring on whether Pluto is a planet or not after this mission,” said Apsell.

While scientists are going to have to wait 16 months for the full report on the dwarf planet, Apsell says they are already receiving reports of a large volumes of nitrogen akin to Earth.


The new images taken at 7,000 miles from the surface will be featured on WGBH’s NOVA special “Chasing Pluto” tonight at 9 PM on PBS.

To listen to the full interviews with NOVA’s Paula Apsell from Tuesday and Wednesday with Morning Edition’s Bob Seay, click on the audio files above.