A Pluto primer for today's flyby

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What You Need to Know About the Historic Pluto Flyby

(NYMag) -- Until this week, the picture above was the best photo anywhere of Pluto, the (former) planet at the end of the solar system. NASA's New Horizons probe will, on Tuesday and Wednesday, make its closest approach to Pluto, coming within 8,000 miles. (The planet is, at its closest, nearly 3 billion miles from Earth.) Doesn't everyone need a Plutonian refresher course?

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New Horizons' Pluto mission
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A Pluto primer for today's flyby
IN SPACE - JULY 15: In this handout provided by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Backlit by the sun, Plutos atmosphere rings its silhouette like a luminous halo in this image taken by NASAs New Horizons spacecraft around midnight EDT on July 15, and released July 23, 2015. New Horizons passed by Pluto July 14, closing to a distance of about 7,800 miles (12,500 kilometers). This global portrait of the atmosphere was captured when the spacecraft was about 1.25 million miles (2 million kilometers) from Pluto and shows structures as small as 12 miles across The 1,050-pound piano sized probe was launched January 19, 2006 aboard an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida, (Photo by NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI via Getty Images)
IN SPACE - JULY 14: In this handout provided by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), A newly discovered mountain range lies near the southwestern margin of Plutos Tombaugh Regio (Tombaugh Region), situated between bright, icy plains and dark, heavily-cratered terrain. This image was acquired by New Horizons Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) on July 14, 2015 from a distance of 48,000 miles (77,000 kilometers) and sent back to Earth on July 20, 2015. Features as small as a half-mile (1 kilometer) across are visible.. The 1,050-pound piano sized probe was launched January 19, 2006 aboard an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida, (Photo by NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI via Getty Images)

Pluto's largest moon Charon

Image Credit: NASA-JHUAPL-SwRI

This July 13, 2015, image of Pluto and Charon is presented in false colors to make differences in surface material and features easy to see. It was obtained by the Ralph instrument on NASA's New Horizons spacecraft, using three filters to obtain color information, which is exaggerated in the image.  These are not the actual colors of Pluto and Charon, and the apparent distance between the two bodies has been reduced for this side-by-side view.

Image Credit: NASA/APL/SwRI

One of the final images taken before New Horizons made its closest approach to Pluto on 14 July 2015. (Photo via NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute)
LAUREL, MD - JULY 14: In this handout provided by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Alice Bowman New Horizons mission operations manager, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), left, New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern of Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), Boulder, CO., and NASA Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate John Grunsfeld unveil the last and sharpest  image of Pluto captured before closest approach of the New Horizons spacecraft during a media briefing moderated by NASA Senior Public Affairs Officer Dwayne Brown, right, Tuesday, July 14, 2015 at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland. New Horizons spacecraft is nearing its July 14 fly-by when it will close to a distance of about 7,800 miles (12,500 kilometers). The 1,050-pound piano sized probe, which was launched January 19, 2006 aboard an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida, is traveling 30,800 mph as it approaches. (Photo by Bill Ingalls/NASA via Getty Images)
IN SPACE - JULY 11: In this handout provided by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the dwarf planet Pluto is shown at distance of about 2.5 million miles July 11, 2015. NASA's New Horizons spacecraft is nearing its July 14 flyby when it will close to a distance of about 7,800 miles (12,500 kilometers). The 1,050-pound piano sized probe, which was launched January 19, 2006 aboard an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida, is traveling 30,800 mph as it approaches. (Photo by NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI via Getty Images)
IN SPACE - JULY 11: In this handout provided by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the dwarf planet Pluto (R) and Charon are shown July 11, 2015. NASA's New Horizons spacecraft is nearing its July 14 flyby when it will close to a distance of about 7,800 miles (12,500 kilometers). The 1,050-pound piano sized probe, which was launched January 19, 2006 aboard an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida, is traveling 30,800 mph as it approaches. (Photo by NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI via Getty Images)
Artist’s concept of the New Horizons spacecraft as it approaches Pluto and its largest moon, Charon, in July 2015. (Photo via NASA)
A view of Pluto and Charon as they would appear if placed slightly above Earth's surface and viewed from a great distance. (Photo via NASA)
Artist conception of New Horizons Spacecraft. (Photo by Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute via NASA) 
In this artist's rendering, Pluto's largest moon Charon rises over the frozen south pole surface of Pluto, casting a faint silvery luminescence across the distant planetary landscape. (Photo by JHUAPL/SwRI via NASA)

This map of Pluto, made from images taken by the LORRI instrument aboard New Horizons, shows a wide array of bright and dark markings of varying sizes and shapes. The elongated dark area informally known as “the whale,” along the equator on the left side of the map, is one of the darkest regions visible to New Horizons. It measures some 1,860 miles (3,000 kilometers) in length. Continuing to the right, along the equator, we see the four mysterious dark spots that have so intrigued the world, each of which is hundreds of miles across. Meanwhile, the whale’s “tail,” at the left end of the dark feature, cradles a bright donut-shaped feature about 200 miles (350 kilometers) across. (Photo via NASA-JHUAPL-SWRI)

IN SPACE - JULY 8: In this handout provided by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the dwarf planet Pluto (R) and it's largest moon Charon is shown at distance of about 3.7 million miles from NASA's New Horizons spacecraft July 8, 2015. The craft is nearing its July 14 flyby when it will close to a distance of about 7,800 miles (12,500 kilometers) from Pluto. The 1,050-pound piano sized probe, which was launched January 19, 2006 aboard an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida, is traveling 30,800 mph as it approaches. The color information in the image, obtained earlier in the mission from instruments, has been added. (Photo by NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI via Getty Images)

This image of Pluto and its largest moon, Charon, was taken by the Ralph color imager aboard NASA's New Horizons spacecraft on April 9 and downlinked to Earth the following day. It is the first color image ever made of the Pluto system by a spacecraft on approach. The image is a preliminary reconstruction, which will be refined later by the New Horizons science team. Clearly visible are both Pluto and the Texas-sized Charon. The image was made from a distance of about 71 million miles (115 million kilometers)-roughly the distance from the Sun to Venus. At this distance, neither Pluto nor Charon is well resolved by the color imager, but their distinctly different appearances can be seen. As New Horizons approaches its flyby of Pluto on July 14, it will deliver color images that eventually show surface features as small as a few miles across.

Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

A Lockheed Martin Atlas V rocket carrying the New Horizons spacecraft lifts off from Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral in Florida, Thursday, January 19, 2006. The New Horizons spacecraft is bound for the planet Pluto to map surface composition and temperatures, and examine Pluto's atmosphere. It will take 9 years for the spacecraft to reach the planet Pluto. (Photo by Red Huber/Orlando Sentinel/MCT via Getty Images)
KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, UNITED STATES: As photographers follow with their camera lenses, the New Horizons spacecraft atop an Atlas V rocket, disappears into the clouds 19 January 2006 at the Kennedy Space Center, Florida. Following two days of delays, the spacecraft is on a trailblazing probe to Pluto, at the solar system's outermost limits. AFP PHOTO/ Bruce Weaver (Photo credit should read BRUCE WEAVER/AFP/Getty Images)
CAMBRIDGE, MA - DECEMBER 10: Richard Binzel, a professor of planetary sciences at MIT who is part of a team working on a NASA mission to Pluto. This is a globe of the solar system. (Photo by Suzanne Kreiter/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
UNSPECIFIED - JANUARY 17: American astronomer Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto, the ninth planet in our solar system, on 18 February 1930. Many key questions about Pluto, its moon Charon, and the outer fringes of our solar system await close-up observations. A proposed NASA mission called New Horizons, depicted in this artist's concept, would use miniature cameras, radio science experiments, ultraviolet and infrared spectrometers and space plasma experiments to study Pluto and Charon, map their surface compositions and temperatures, and examine Pluto's atmosphere in detail. (Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)
KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, UNITED STATES: Engineers from Johns Hopkins University check out NASA's New Horizons spacecraft 04 November 2005 in the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility at Kennedy Space Center, Florida in preparation for its mid-January 2006 launch aboard an Atlas V rocket. The New Horizons will be the first mission to the planet Pluto and the Kuiper Belt, the journey taking about nine years. Pluto was discovered in 1930 at a distance of some 6.4 billion kilometers (three billion miles) from the sun in the heart of the Kuiper Belt -- a zone beyond Neptune 4.5-7.5 billion kilometers (2.8-4.6 billion miles) from the sun, which is estimated to include more than 35,000 objects of more than 100 kilomters (65 miles) in diameter: the remnants of the sun's accretion ring of matter from which all the planets were formed. AFP PHOTO/Bruce WEAVER (Photo credit should read BRUCE WEAVER/AFP/Getty Images)
KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, UNITED STATES: Engineers from Johns Hopkins University check out NASA's New Horizons spacecraft 04 November 2005 in the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility at Kennedy Space Center, Florida in preparation for its mid-January 2006 launch aboard an Atlas V rocket. The New Horizons will be the first mission to the planet Pluto and the Kuiper Belt, the journey taking about nine years. Pluto was discovered in 1930 at a distance of some 6.4 billion kilometers (three billion miles) from the sun in the heart of the Kuiper Belt -- a zone beyond Neptune 4.5-7.5 billion kilometers (2.8-4.6 billion miles) from the sun, which is estimated to include more than 35,000 objects of more than 100 kilomters (65 miles) in diameter: the remnants of the sun's accretion ring of matter from which all the planets were formed. AFP PHOTO/Bruce WEAVER (Photo credit should read BRUCE WEAVER/AFP/Getty Images)
A Lockheed Martin Atlas V rocket carrying the New Horizons spacecraft lifts off from Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral in Florida, Thursday, January 19, 2006. The New Horizons spacecraft is bound for the planet Pluto to map surface composition and temperatures, and examine Pluto's atmosphere. It will take 9 years for the spacecraft to reach the planet Pluto. (Photo by Red Huber/Orlando Sentinel/MCT via Getty Images)
The New Horizons spacecraft atop an Atlas V rocket lifts off 19 January 2006 at the Kennedy Space Center, Florida. The spacecraft is on a trailblazing probe to Pluto, at the solar system's outermost limits, following two days of delays AFP PHOTO/Bruce Weaver (Photo credit should read BRUCE WEAVER/AFP/Getty Images)
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THE PREDICTION
In the 1910s, Percival Lowell, a wealthy astronomer, saw an anomaly in the orbit of Neptune and theorized that there was another planet whose gravitational pull was tugging on it. He called it "Planet X." Lowell's prediction was confirmed by Clyde W. Tombaugh, an aspiring scientist who had not even graduated from college but enjoyed spending his free time alone at the Lowell family's observatory, outside Flagstaff, Arizona. The white dot he was looking for finally appeared on a set of photos taken through the telescope on February 18, 1930.

THE NAME
Venetia Burney, an Oxford schoolgirl, was 11 at the time. She submitted the name after her father read an article aloud at breakfast about the new discovery. Her father knew Professor Herbert Hall Turner, a professor of astronomy at Oxford, who submitted the name on her behalf. She was paid £5. The name was ostensibly chosen because the Roman god Pluto — equivalent to the Greek Hades — patrolled the underworld. But, as has been widely noted, the first two letters of Pluto are the initials of Percival Lowell. (Venetia Phair, as she was known after her marriage, died in 2009, at 90.)

THE DOG
The next year, Walt Disney needed a name for Mickey Mouse's dog and chose a playful-sounding one from the headlines.

A LITERARY PREDICTION
In 1930, H.P. Lovecraft wrote the short story "The Whisper in Darkness." In it, he imagined "Yuggoth," a fictional ninth planet used as a base by an alien race. Pluto was discovered while he was writing the story, and he published it the next year.

THE NEIGHBORS
Charon
Pluto's largest moon.
Discovered: June 22, 1978
Named for: Pluto's (Hades's) ferryman, who carries dead souls into the underworld across the river Styx.
Nearly the same size as the planet, and much closer to Pluto than our moon is to Earth. Pluto and Charon pivot around each other as they orbit the sun, like paired swing dancers.

Nix and Hydra
Smaller moons.
Named for: A minor goddess of night, and the many-headed monster Hercules was sent to destroy.
Discovered: October 2005
Smaller, and further out than Charon.

Kerberos
A tiny extra moon, orbiting between Nix and Hydra.
Named for: The three-headed hellhound who guards the entrance to the underworld.
Discovered: 2011

Styx
Even tinier: probably not much bigger than Manhattan.
Named for: The river, not the band.
Discovered: 2012

THE DEMOTION
In 1992, scientists defined and named the Kuiper Belt, a large band of rocks orbiting the sun more or less just beyond Pluto. As they began to classify and count objects there, they began to conclude that Pluto was merely one orbiting body among many. In 1999, the astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson advocated Pluto's demotion; in 2005, the astronomer Mike Brown added to the chorus, after he discovered another neighbor, about the same size as Pluto, now called Eris. The governing body known as the International Astronomical Union debated whether to add Eris or subtract Pluto from the list of planets, and in 2006, did the latter, labeling each a "dwarf planet" by a vote of 237 to 157. Brown was besieged by TV reporters, and, like Tyson, began to receive hate mail from schoolchildren — all because of the discovery he had spent a lifetime working toward.

HOW COLD IS IT?
Really, really cold: -378 to -396 degrees Fahrenheit. Water ice, if there were any, would be as hard as granite. If there's any hydrogen in the atmosphere, it's not a gas but a solid.

THIS MISSION
Nine years ago, NASA launched the New Horizons Mission to visit Pluto and its satellite Charon. This week, we'll get the first real photographs of the two frozen orbs. Pluto fans have been suggesting that interesting discoveries and good photos may make their case for reinstatement to full planet status. Given the distance, the limited bandwidth, and the laborious nature of turning the antenna to point back toward Earth to send data home, much of the information will take a couple of weeks to get here. Along with the scientific instrumentation, a tiny vial of Clyde Tombaugh's ashes is along for the ride.

SNEAK PEEK of gorgeous Pluto! The dwarf planet has sent a love note back to Earth via our New Horizons spacecraft, which has traveled more than 9 years and 3+ billion miles. This is the last and most detailed image of Pluto sent to Earth before the moment of closest approach - 7:49 a.m. EDT today. This same image will be released and discussed at 8 a.m. EDT today. Watch our briefing live on NASA Television at: http://www.nasa.gov/nasatv The high res pic will be posted on the web at: http://www.nasa.gov. This stunning image of the dwarf planet was captured from New Horizons at about 4 p.m. EDT on July 13, about 16 hours before the moment of closest approach. The spacecraft was 476,000 miles (766,000 kilometers) from the surface. Image Credit: NASA #nasa #pluto #plutoflyby #newhorizons #solarsystem #nasabeyond #science

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