Pluto at last

eva emerson
Sandy Schaffer
On the New Horizons mission home page, the days, hours, minutes and seconds count down as you watch. The distance the spacecraft still has to travel to reach Pluto updates every minute, to within the nearest kilometer. Next month, the interplanetary journey, which has taken more than nine years and nearly 5 billion kilometers, will end in a relatively fleeting flyby. New Horizons is traveling so fast that there will be only a few days when its target is in close view.

But this carefully orchestrated space ballet will permanently change the face of Pluto. The dwarf planet will transform from a pixelated blur into a sharp image of rock and ice. Along with this photographic face-lift, Pluto will finally come into focus scientifically, as Christopher Crockett describes. The mission to this remote outpost on the edge of the familiar part of our solar system will help answer questions about why Pluto’s atmosphere is drifting off into space and whether it’s home to ice volcanoes. It will also start to fill in the picture of what’s beyond Pluto’s orbit — the sea of icy objects that make up the Kuiper belt. This dim population of planetary leftovers circles the sun in a far region that’s still largely unexplored.

The reenergized Large Hadron Collider, now smashing particles at higher energies than ever before, is also exploring new frontiers, as Andrew Grant reports. Physicists hope this round of collisions will generate new cracks in their theories about the particles and forces at work in the universe, leading to new insights.

Scientists searching for an explanation of the apparent pause in global warming may now switch gears, thanks to insights from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. NOAA’s new analyses suggest the observed hiatus was just the result of biased data; correcting for that reveals a clear increase in the rate of global warming this century, Thomas Sumner writes.

Precision matters, whether we’re looking at global temperatures, subatomic particles or the carefully timed approach to a faraway world. Be it a planet or not.

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