STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
A NASA probe billions of miles away from Earth awoke from a state of hibernation over the weekend. The New Horizons spacecraft has spent nine years in space, and it's getting close to Pluto. Here's NPR's Geoff Brumfiel.
GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: You know, I really thought I'd seen a good shot of Pluto somewhere on the Internet. But Alan Stern says nu-uh.
ALAN STERN: (Laughter) I should make a joke about what kind of websites you're looking at.
BRUMFIEL: Stern is in charge of New Horizons. He says up until now, the best photo we've had of Pluto was really blurry.
STERN: The best images ever made were made with the Hubble Space Telescope. And they can just barely resolve Pluto in the distance - just a few pixels across.
BRUMFIEL: I dug them up, and they're surprisingly bad. You can see them for yourself on npr.org. Pluto is just a brown smudge. Even based on that poor image, Stern says Pluto looks like an interesting place. That's good news because New Horizons has traveled almost 3 billion miles to snap a better photo. It will fly by Pluto next year, and Stern says the probe should be able to see all sorts of stuff.
STERN: We expect to find craters, perhaps mountain ranges. We know it has an atmosphere. But we don't know if there are clouds or hazes in that atmosphere. It's even possible there could be liquids on the surface. There could be more moons. There could be rings. There all kinds of discoveries. That's why we're going.
BRUMFIEL: And there has never been a better time to visit Pluto. For decades, scientists thought it was an outlier, a strange critter lurking at the edge of the solar system.
STERN: We thought of the solar system as four rocky, terrestrial planets on the inside - Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars - four big gas, giant planets - Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune -and little misfit Pluto.
BRUMFIEL: But starting in the 1990s, researchers realized that Pluto is no misfit. Other little planets are hiding in the shadows. Some already have names - Eris, Makemake, Haumea. They're called dwarf planets, and they're actually more common than the planets we've heard of.
STERN: Pluto and its brethren are the most populous class of planet in our solar system.
BRUMFIEL: New Horizons will get its first glimpse of Pluto in January. It will come within a few thousand miles of the surface in July. At those distances, it should be able to deliver stunning views of Pluto even in the faint twilight of deep space. Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News.
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