New Horizons Begins Observing Pluto

Jan 15, 2015

After nine years of interplanetary travel, the New Horizons Spacecraft today begins its first observations of Pluto. It will be the first exploration of its kind of the dwarf planet. As Arizona Public Radio’s Justin Regan reports, the mission has special significance for Flagstaff, where Pluto was discovered.

The New Horizons Spacecraft will travel to Pluto and the Kuiper belt.
Credit NASA

The photographic telescope Tombaugh used at Lowell Observatory to discover Pluto.
Credit Justin Regan

In 2015, New Horizons will observe and study Pluto, with the day of its closest approach to the dwarf planet in July.
Credit Justin Regan


Karma Sushi is one of the most happening restaurants in Downtown Flagstaff. Today chefs are creating a special roll in honor of the New Horizons Pluto mission.

Steven Scully is the owner of Karma sushi. He says almost 90 years ago it was a restaurant called the Black Cat Café. And one of its usual customers was Clyde Tombaugh, the astronomer who discovered Pluto. 

“It was a popular lunch spot for the locals and Clyde obviously was one of those customers. So apparently in his journals and his writings, the day that he discovered Pluto he walked downtown and had lunch here, in this very building,” said Scully.

Tombaugh worked just up the road at the Lowell Observatory. Through a giant telescope, he took pictures of a particular section of the night sky.

A contraption known as a blink comparator helped him look for differences between the images. Tombaugh was trying to find something else in the midst of hundreds of thousands of stars. Kevin Schindler is the content specialist for the Lowell Observatory.

“Clyde Tombaugh took an arduous journey in discovering Pluto, because what he was looking for was a small body in our solar system. The Solar system had been studied pretty thoroughly up to that point. So the idea was to look for this photographically, because if it was a big obvious planet, somebody else would have seen it through a telescope by now,” Schindler said.

But it wasn’t a big obvious planet. Tombaugh found Pluto, by extensively comparing photographs of the night sky. He was looking for movement, because closer objects, like a planet, would move more than distant stars. Ultimately, he found that one black speck that moved more than any of them. And it was named, Pluto.

“Pluto is more connected to Flagstaff and to Lowell Observatory than perhaps any other place. Pluto was discovered here, its largest moon, Charon was discovered here at the Naval Observatory in the 1970’s. Several of its other moons were discovered by a team that included an astronomer who then worked at Lowell observatory. Pluto is Flagstaff’s. You talk to residents of Flagstaff and there’s a lot of ownership with Pluto,” said Schindler.

Tombaugh spotted Pluto from well over 3 billion miles away. The New Horizons spacecraft will get within six thousand miles of Pluto, giving scientists the closest look yet of the dwarf planet.

Will Grundy is a planetary Scientist at Lowell. He’s leading the team studying Pluto’s surface composition.

“What we know about Pluto right now is really just the very basic facts. We know how big it is roughly. We know what the surface ingredients are. We know that it has an atmosphere, we know what some of the ingredients in the atmosphere are. But a lot of the little details we really don’t know,” said Grundy.     

Grundy hopes the mission will shed more light on Pluto’s geologic activity, atmospheric content and whether its biggest moon, Charon, has volcanic activity or even an atmosphere of its own. The mission may even explore beyond Pluto to the Kuiper belt. But all that remains to be seen. Alan Stern is the Principal investigator for New Horizons.

“It’s not like a lot of missions that are happening now like when we go back to Mars with very specific questions, this is raw exploration. There hasn’t been anything like it since the 1980’s and we don’t know what we will find, that’s probably the most exciting part,” said Stern.

Whatever New Horizons finds, astronomer Clyde Tombaugh will, in a sense, be there. Some of his ashes are traveling with the probe as it brings his little black speck into a new age of discovery.