Fasten your seat belts, space cadets: We’re officially in the final countdown to NASA’s 3-billion-mile journey to Pluto.
Pluto was actually still a planet when the space agency launched the mission in early 2006. (In case you’ve been living in a crater for the past nine years, Pluto was unceremoniously demoted due to its size that same summer. It’s now considered a “dwarf planet” — which I’m assured by our HR department is a perfectly acceptable term to use — or a “plutoid,” if you’re feeling politically correct.)
Today, the agency’s unmanned New Horizons spacecraft is in a galaxy far, far away — or, at least, at the edge of our solar system. Earlier this morning it brushed up against the former planet’s private space, coming within 8,000 miles of the dwarf — err, plutoid. While we won’t get the full scope of NASA’s findings for a while, details about the enigmatic Pluto are slowly but surely trickling in.
Behold: seven titillating tidbits we just learned about everyone’s favorite dwarf planet.
1. It may be a dwarf, but Pluto measures up better than we thought
Early measurements indicate Pluto has a diameter of about 1,473 miles — the equivalent of nearly 22,000 football fields stacked end to end. That’s about 44 miles more than scientists’ previous starting estimate.
Here’s what really counts: The new measurement means Pluto is now considered the largest solar system object beyond Neptune’s orbit. It’s less dense than we thought, too, with an icier interior.
See? Size does matter.
2. Pluto has strong gas
That isn’t Uranus you’re smelling, folks: NASA scientists have confirmed they’ve found nitrogen seeping out of Pluto’s atmosphere. The nitro showed up a full four days earlier than the team had expected, which suggests Pluto could be losing its atmosphere faster than previously believed.
It also explains why Pluto never gets invited to any interplanetary dinner parties.
3. Pluto’s wearing a stylish ice cap
Speaking of gas, New Horizons has revealed that Pluto’s so-called polar cap is actually made up of ice — frozen methane and nitrogen, to be specific. So let’s all just chill for a minute, OK?
4. Pluto has a heart — and a whale
Among the geographical features observed on Pluto’s surface are a “whale” — a dark band along the plutoid’s equator, complete with a tail-like attachment — and a bright heart to keep everyone feeling warm and fuzzy inside. It’s too soon to know what either shape represents, but we’re holding out hope for a colony of super-affectionate alien sea creatures.
5. It also has cliffs and craters
Some of the craters could be signs of impact, formed from smaller objects slamming into Pluto’s surface. Once again, all the big planets are ganging up on the little guy.
To make up for this solar-systemic bullying, researchers are thinking about naming some of Pluto’s craters after characters in Star Trek. No, really — they are.
6. Some of Pluto’s spots are even more mysterious
Forget the cliffs, craters, and whales (oh my!): What scientists really want to understand is what’s going on with a series of dark spots seen on Pluto’s side. The spots are closely aligned in size and spacing — an effect NASA experts describe as “weird” (that’s the technical term).
We understand NASA’s next mission to Pluto will include a payload of Porcelana anti-aging cream.
7. Pluto’s moons are, like, superdeep, dude
Pluto has five known moons, and we’re learning more about ’em with every passing day. The largest one — Charon (“Don’t Call Her Sharon”) — is filled with craters. And get this: One of the craters is longer and deeper than our own Grand Canyon.
That’s all just scratching the planetary surface, ladies and gents. New Horizons is scheduled to check back in late Tuesday evening after its fly-by has finished. It may take some time for any sort of final report to be released, but believe us: The results should be out of this world.