College of Science and Mathematics

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Pluto Flyby Part of ‘Golden Age Of Solar Exploration,’ Physics Professor Says

July 22, 2015

SAN LUIS OBISPO — History was made last week when NASA’s New Horizon’s spacecraft ventured to the farthest reaches of our solar system for a close encounter with Pluto. 

The feat — a three-billion-mile journey nearly a decade in the making — gave scientists, engineers and space enthusiasts a reason to celebrate. 

“I tell my students this all the time: this is the golden age of solar system exploration,” said David Mitchell, a Cal Poly physics professor.

 

On Wednesday, July 15, the spacecraft sent back the first up-close images of Pluto’s surface. The images revealed a diverse topography that featured mountains made of ice. Two days later, the spacecraft returned another set of images that showed swaths of nearly craterless icy plains along the dwarf planet’s surface. Initial observations of the surface, scientists say, suggest geologic activity. 

The spacecraft is taking photos and gathering an abundance of data on Pluto and its five moons, brining into focus what for years was an incomplete picture of the dwarf planet. 

“With Pluto, we had this picture and it was 20 pixels and it looked like this little blotch. We really knew very little,” Mitchell said. “This is sort of the culmination of looking through the major objects in our solar system.”

The New Horizons mission, Mitchell said, is one of several exciting unmanned space missions launched in recent years. 

“These missions are bringing back information we didn’t have before. New Horizons is just one example,” said Mitchell, who in 2013, alongside fellow researchers, discovered two new planets.

The New Horizons mission has opened up opportunities for Mitchell to create new teaching lessons.  

“I’ll definitely talk about New Horizons on the first day of class,” he said. “It’s going to be awesome to show photos of Pluto and use that as an example of craters and what craters tell us. They’re holes in the ground, but they actually tell us what’s happening underneath the surface.” 

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