College of EngineeringDepartment of Aerospace EngineeringResearchSeminarsEventsProf. Richard P. Binzel, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Prof. Richard P. Binzel, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Pluto Revealed! Latest Results from NASA's New Horizons Mission
March 2, 2018


After nearly two decades of struggling for approval, a NASA-funded Pluto mission finally reached the launch pad in January 2006. Nine-and-a-half years later in July 2015, the piano-sized New Horizons spacecraft reached the Pluto system revealing an amazingly bizarre planetary world. Ice mountains as tall as the Rockies and smooth plains of frozen methane 500 km across are just some of the surprising features. Pluto appears to be a globally changing planet with seasonal cycles ranging from decades to millennia producing an evolving landscape of nitrogen ice glaciers and variable atmospheric pressure. Together with its largest satellite, Pluto and Charon form a “double planet” system orbiting a common center of gravity located outside of either body. Charon’s surface also appears relatively young and crater-free, implying some recent-era geologic activity. Completing the system are four small moons found to be irregularly shaped with complex spin patterns in their own regularly spaced orbits. As New Horizons continues its voyage out of our solar system, its sites are set on a newly discovered Kuiper Belt object for a January 2019 close encounter.


Prof. Richard P. Binzel

He has been an MIT faculty member for 30 years as a Professor of Planetary Science in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences. He holds a Joint Professor appointment in the MIT Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics. He published his first scientific paper at the age of 15 and over five decades has become known as one of the world's leading scientists in the study of Pluto and asteroids. He was a charter member of the "Pluto Underground," which in 1989 began the long task of designing and gaining approval for a spacecraft mission to Pluto. His decades of telescopic reconnaissance observations have formed the scientific foundations for five NASA flight missions and also correctly predicted the meteorite link delivered by the Japanese Hayabusa asteroid sample return mission, noted by SCIENCE as one of the Top Ten Breakthroughs of the Year (2011). In recognition of these pathfinding contributions, he was awarded NASA’s Silver Achievement medal in 2017, the second highest honor NASA can bestow to a civilian scientist. Previously Binzel was honored with a Presidential Young Investigator award from George H. W. Bush in 1990 and the Harold C. Urey Prize from the American  Astronomical Society Division for Planetary Sciences in 1991. Asteroid number 2873 bears his name, an honor bestowed by the International Astronomical Union in recognition of his contributions to the field.