NASA zooms in on Pluto, for closest views yet | WBEZ
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NASA zooms in on Pluto, for closest views yet

▲ LISTEN Michelle Nichols, master educator at the Adler Planetarium, joins Morning Shift's Tony Sarabia to talk about NASA's trip to Pluto and why this an important advancement in space technology.

New images of Pluto have arrived from a NASA space probe, and they're already allowing scientists to update what we know about the dwarf planet – such as its size. NASA's New Horizons probe has traveled more than 3 billion miles to send photos and data about Pluto back to Earth.

NASA is set to release more images and data gleaned from New Horizon's closest approach to Pluto, which was achieved just before 8 a.m. ET Tuesday, when it was about 7,800 miles from the planet. We'll update this post with news from the space agency, which is still compiling data that was already sent back to Earth — and is awaiting new information from the flyby.

A trove of information is expected to be released Tuesday — particularly tonight, after NASA reconnects with the New Horizons craft that's been focused on gathering information about Pluto rather than communicating with Earth.

In addition to a delay of more than 4 hours (due to the probe's distance from Earth), information will trickle back to NASA at a rate that would frustrate many Internet users.

Alice Bowman, the New Horizons mission operations manager, says the data rate is around 1,000 bits per second, with a maximum of around 4,0000 bits. That's just a fraction of the traditional 56K speed of U.S. dial-up accounts.

A key revelation that's already come out about Pluto concerns its size — NASA says its diameter is 1,473 miles, or 2,370 kilometers, ending a debate that has raged since the planet's discovery in 1930.

"Pluto's newly estimated size means that its density is slightly lower than previously thought, and the fraction of ice in its interior is slightly higher," NASA says. "Also, the lowest layer of Pluto's atmosphere, called the troposphere, is shallower than previously believed."

More details about Pluto's unusual characteristics will no doubt add to a debate among scientists over how to categorize it because of its small size and other factors.

"Pluto also orbits at a funny angle compared to the other planets," as NPR's Geoff Brumfiels has reported. "And there are a whole lot of other Pluto-like things cluttering up the outer reaches of the solar system."

— via NPR's The Two-Way

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