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Spacecraft Explores Dwarf Planet’s Mysteries

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NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft is zipping past the dwarf planet Pluto. Scientists are excited about what they might learn from the data it gathers during its brief fly by.

Ben Bromley is a theoretical astrophysicist at the University of Utah who’s fascinated by how planets are formed. So, he’s thrilled about what the probe might be able to tell us.

“NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft will fly right by Pluto, our favorite dwarf planet,” says Bromley, “collecting data which will tell us – hopefully – about the origins of Pluto and the origins of other planets in our solar system and elsewhere in the universe.”

Bromley describes Pluto as a kind of “icy, compact snowball” orbiting the sun some 3 billion miles from Earth. He says just getting the spacecraft close is a feat.

NASA has programmed New Horizons to gather information for a few hours while it zips by Pluto at 31,000 mph. The probe will gather information about the dwarf planet’s geology, atmosphere and its dynamic relationship with five its moons.

Bromley says exploring these questions is our destiny.

“Once we begin to understand things like how did the planet Earth form, we’ll begin to ask, ‘How did other planets form around other stars?’ and ‘Do we have company?’,” he says.

The University of Utah’s Astronomy Department is hosting a Plutopalooza on campus Tuesday. The watch party begins at 6 p.m., hours after the probe has been its closest to Pluto.

Judy Fahys has reported in Utah for two decades, covering politics, government and business before taking on environmental issues. She loves covering Utah, where petroleum-pipeline spills, the nation’s radioactive legacy and other types of pollution provide endless fodder for stories. Previously, she worked for the Salt Lake Tribune in Utah, and reported on the nation’s capital for States News Service and the Scripps League newspaper chain. She is a longtime member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors. She also spent an academic year as a research fellow in the Knight Science Journalism program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In her spare time, she enjoys being out in the environment, especially hiking, gardening and watercolor painting.
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