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Moseyin’ Along

Pictures from the outer edge

July 23, 2015
Westfield Republican

Do you remember those soft summer nights when we were kids, when we'd stretch out on the lawn and gaze in awe at the star show above us?

From time to time, we'd be dazzled by a shooting star, racing across the dark arch. And we would wonder what was up there, beyond that black, diamond-dusted ceiling.

While you and I were filled with fascination, others youngsters were choosing to follow their curiosity into the field of astronomy, to open the secrets hidden in the universe. Those dreamers and searchers became the foundation of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the country's key to space exploration.

Last week, the dedicated folks at NASA saw a long-planned dream come true when their New Horizons spacecraft swept by Pluto, the outermost planet in our solar system.

For days, we were treated to pictures of this "dwarf planet," an astounding 3 BILLION miles away from Earth.

This ambitious mission, with a price tag of $720 million, began with the launch of the New Horizons craft from Cape Canaveral, Florida, way back in 2006.

Thanks to NASA's ongoing bulletins, we've all come to know much more about little Pluto than ever before. The facts I found most interesting involved the size of what the Space Agency has called an "oddball world."

The 4.5 billion-year-old planet is actually smaller than our own moon. To give us "Earthlings" some perspective, NASA's issued these official comparisons: "if the sun were as tall as a typical front door, Earth would be the size of a nickel and the dwarf planet Pluto would be about the size of the head of a pin."

The report went on to say that "one day on Pluto takes about 153 hours." And a year in Plutonian time is about 248 Earth years.

Though Pluto was discovered in 1930, its position at the edge of the solar system made study impossible. Because of the distance involved, even the powerful Hubble Space Telescope could only make out a brown smudge when aimed at the planet.

But now that New Horizons has been sending back its astounding pictures, scientists have identified "craters and regions of dark-reddish ground" They also have a close-up view of a "region of towering ice mountains, up to 11,000 feet high."

In addition, the pictures show details of Pluto's largest moon, Charon, locked with the planet in a tight orbit.

It's hard to believe that this small but dramatic planet was out there with all the other heavenly bodies on those long-ago nights when you and I were scanning the star-studded skies.

Now, thanks to the careful work of the NASA scientists and others in the astronomy community, we have a new understanding of this, the smallest of our planetary neighbors.

With the rousing success of the New Horizons space craft, one of the lead scientists on the project summed up the current situation. He noted this is a bittersweet moment in the mission. He said, "Now, suddenly, Pluto is in the rear-view mirror and New Horizons is plunging deeper into the darkness of space."

Who knows what other secrets, still hidden in that darkness, will be revealed in the years ahead, perhaps by a young boy or girl who tonight will be lying on the grass, gazing up at that mysterious sky and wondering...



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