Pluto, the smallest planet in our solar system, has remained unexplored since astronomer Clyde Tombaugh first discovered it in 1930. Pluto is the only planet not yet seen up close by any spacecraft because Pluto is so far away and so hard to get to. The study of Pluto has continued to challenge astronomers who study planets.
The purpose of the Pluto Express mission is to be the first probe to see Pluto and its moon, Charon, close up and take pictures. This mission will complete the exploration of the last unexplored planet and answer basic questions about the beginning of the solar system. Dark, cold Pluto is an oddity among the planets and may provide considerable information about the early periods of planetary evolution, and perhaps even to the origin of Earthís atmosphere.
The overall objective of the Pluto Express mission is to make the first close-up observations of the Pluto-Charon system. The science goals are:
Pluto Express is also planning to get to Pluto as fast as possible because Pluto has an atmosphere that only exists when itís closer to the Sun. When Pluto moves away from the Sun the atmosphere freezes on the surface of the planet. If Pluto Express does not arrive at Pluto when itís close to the Sun, it will not be able to find out what gases make up Plutoís atmosphere.
At this time, NASA has decided to delay the launch of the Pluto Express. If, or when they decide to launch the Pluto Express, the mission will be launched to arrive in about 8 to 12 years. The speed will be about 11 miles per second (18 kilometers per second) or 40,265 mph (64,800 km/h).
Unless otherwise noted, all images courtesy of NASA. Permission for use at http://www.nasa.gov/gallery/photo/guideline.html.
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