The Year of the Dwarf Planets

Image Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory
Artist Impression of Pluto Image Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory

The year 2015 will arguably be the year of dwarf planet exploration since NASA has 2 missions that will reach their destinations this year. The category known as dwarf planets is a relatively new concept. In 2006 the IAU (International Astronomical Union) decided that a new category of objects was necessary because they had to modify the definition of a planet. As some of you heard with this change the 9th planet Pluto was officially changed to a dwarf planet leaving only 8 planets in the solar system. There are currently 5 dwarf planets in our solar system: Ceres, Pluto, Eris, Makemake and Haumea. This year there will be two missions arriving at their dwarf planet destinations of Ceres and Pluto.

Artist Impression of Dawn orbiting Vesta. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Artist Impression of Dawn orbiting Vesta. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The spacecraft heading to Ceres will arrive first March 6th 2015 and the name of that spacecraft is Dawn. Dawn has been in space since 2007 but it did not take a direct trip to Ceres. Dawns first destination was a large asteroid named Vesta which it successfully orbited around for over 1 year. After investigation Vesta Dawn then departed to head to Ceres. When Dawn arrives at Ceres it will stay in orbit around Ceres for the remainder of the mission. For more information about Dawn and Ceres visit NASA: Dawn Mission.

 

 

New Horizons approaching Pluto. Image Credit: Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute (JHUAPL/SwRI)
New Horizons approaching Pluto. Image Credit: Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute (JHUAPL/SwRI)

Later in the year in July of 2015 will be the spacecraft New Horizons making its closest approach to Pluto. New Horizons was launched in 2006 where it later received a gravity assist push from the largest planet in the solar system Jupiter. Once New Horizons reaches Pluto it will have 150 days of flyby time to take good photos of Pluto. During these 150 days New Horizons will be travelling roughly 30,000 miles per hour. During New Horizons investigation it will also help discover stuff about Charon which is a very large moon of Pluto. After New Horizons completes its flyby of Pluto and Charon it is planned to investigate other Kuiper belt objects as well but those destinations have yet to be decided. For more information about New Horizons and Pluto visit NASA: New Horizons.

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