Below, are the best images we humans have of the dwarf planet Pluto.
Even the Hubble Space Telescope can only make out the blurry basic features of the planet. These images were taken by Hubble from 2003 to 2003. (NASA)
At best, we can describe it as a reddish, relatively small rocky smudgy thing (with points!). And while we know the basics of the planet's size and shape, we really don't know what the thing looks like ... yet. As a NASA "ScienceCast" video on YouTube explains (embedded below), "No one knows what to expect when the alien landscape comes into focus. There could be icy geysers, towering mountains, deep valleys, and even planetary rings."
Well, mark your calendars: A year from now—the morning of July 14, 2015, to be exact—NASA should be able to obtain a clear, up-close image of the former 9th planet. That's when the New Horizons spacecraft will make its long-awaited pass of the planet. "It's Bastille Day," NASA planetary scientist Alan Stern told NPR, dovetailing planetary and historical nerdiness. "To celebrate, we're storming the gates of Pluto.
New Horizons launched in 2006 with a record-breaking velocity of 36,373 mph to embark on a 4.6 billion-mile journey to Pluto. For some perspective, it took New Horizons one year to arrive at Jupiter, and seven more to get where it is today, a year's journey away from Pluto.
At its closest approach, New Horizons will be 6,200 miles above the surface of Pluto and will take the clearest possible shots of the space rock. The second closest approach to Pluto in the past, NPR reports, was some billion miles away.
NASA has previously noticed changes in the smudgy color patterns in the Hubble images, which suggests that the surface might be more dynamic than a static frozen ice ball. But we just don't know. Previous missions to photograph planets have provoked paradigm shifts in our understanding of them. Before Mariner 4 took shots of Mars in 1965, we didn't know if it harbored plants and forests or if it was a giant red desert. In the earlier parts of the 20th century, speculation about the composition of Mars ran wild. One 1912 Salt Lake Tribune headline reads, "Mars Peopled By One Vast Thinking Vegetable!"
"Many predictions have being made by the science community, including possible rings, geyser eruptions, and even lakes," a NASA official said in a news release. "Whatever we find, I believe Pluto and its satellites will surpass all our expectations and surprise us beyond our imagination."