In 1930, Clyde Tombo, a 25-year-old amateur astronomer, spied on a small, obscure object in the night sky.
He worked at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona for about a year when he used the eyelid comparator – a special type of microscope that can examine and compare images – for what was then the ninth planet in our solar system: Pluto.
By all accounts, Pluto was well – fantastic. At one point, astronomers thought it might be larger than Mars (it isn’t). Its unusual 248-year orbit is known to cross the path of Neptune. Today, Pluto is recognized as the largest object in the Kuiper Belt – but it is no longer considered a planet.
In 2006, the International Astronomical Union voted to downgrade Pluto, defining the planet as a body orbiting the Sun, that it was spherical, and “cleared the neighborhoods around its orbit” – it became so impressive by gravity. There are no bodies in its orbital zone except the moon. Since Pluto did not check that third check, it was considered a dwarf planet.
Now a new concept concept mission submitted to NASA aims to monitor Pluto and its nearby systems. Proposed in late 2020, Persephone will explore whether Pluto has oceans and how the planet’s surface and atmosphere have evolved.
Persophone will send a spacecraft equipped with a high-resolution camera into Pluto’s orbit for three years and map its surface as well as its largest moon, Caron.
But why is a visit to Pluto appropriate?
That same year Pluto was propelled beyond its planetary river, NASA sent a New Horizons mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt to better understand the outer edges of our solar system.
After the arrival of Pluto in 2015, New Horizon was like a scientific treasure. Pluto’s close-ups revealed a surprising record of potential active mountain ranges, flowing ice, and geographic history on its surface.
Carly Howett, a planetary physicist and chief investigator for Persophone, says the New Horizons showed us just how complex that part of space really is.
“It wasn’t that New Horizon had a fundamentally new technology, but it did give those types of people an understanding of what a Pluto system might look like,” Hoet says. “The world, for the first time, saw Pluto.”