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Space… the Final Frontier - July 17, 2015

New Horizons launched on Jan. 19, 2006; it swung past Jupiter for a gravity boost and scientific studies in February 2007, and is now conducting a five-month-long reconnaissance flyby study of Pluto and its moons in summer 2015. (Flickr Photo via NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center)

Q: NASA's New Horizons spacecraft completed its flyby of Pluto this week. The tiny planet was discovered by Kansas farmer Clyde Tombaugh in 1930. What's the power source for the spacecraft? 

Hint: Its atomic number is 94.


A: PLUTOnium, of course 

NASA's New Horizons spacecraft is about the size of a grand piano. After traveling more than 3 billion miles during the past nine-and-a-half years, the craft completed its flyby of Pluto this week -- on Tuesday, July 14, 2015. The craft sent back to Earth the best photographs we've ever seen of the icy dwarf planet. 

Hurling through space -- ten times faster than a speeding bullet -- New Horizons travels about a million miles a day. It's powered by plutonium, a radioactive element named after Pluto itself! And the spacecraft is still speeding through space, on its way through the Kuiper Belt. 

Pluto was discovered in 1930 by Kansas farmer Clyde Tombaugh, while he was working as a paid intern at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Ariz. He was just 24 years old and had not yet been to college when he found Pluto. The University of Kansas awarded him a full-ride scholarship for his amazing work as a young amateur astronomer. 

Fun Factoid: Pluto discoverer Clyde Tombaugh took to wearing a Pluto wristwatch later in life. (Yes, a wristwatch featuring Mickey Mouse’s dog, Pluto, who himself was named after the small, faraway planet on the outer edge of our solar system.)

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