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Spotted face of distant Pluto coming into focus

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NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft is closing fast on an unexpectedly spotted Pluto, the most distant planetary body ever explored.

From New Horizon’s position more than 3 billion miles (4.88 billion km) from Earth, radio signals, traveling at the speed of light, take nearly four and a half hours to reach the ground.

Not that the probe, which has been traveling toward Pluto for more than nine years, is currently spending much time relaying back pictures and data from its seven science instruments.

With its closest approach to Pluto slated for 7:49 a.m. EDT on Tuesday, New Horizons is running on auto-pilot to gather as much scientific information as possible leading up to its one-shot punch past Pluto and its entourage of five known moons. Data will be radioed back to Earth over the next 16 months.

“You have to really be into delayed gratification if you want to be on this mission,” said New Horizons lead scientist Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado.

The spacecraft, about the size of a baby grand piano and weighing in at just over 1,000 pounds (454 kg), doesn’t carry the propellant to fire braking rockets to slow down and slip into orbit.

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NASA launched a fleet of initial reconnaissance missions between 1960 and 1977 to every planet in the solar system except Pluto.

DESIGNATED AS DWARF PLANET

But after the 1992 discovery that the solar system had a heavily populated ‘backyard’ beyond Neptune, a region known as the Kuiper Belt, a band of scientists won their long crusade to send a probe to Pluto.

Just months after New Horizons launched, Pluto was formally removed from the solar system’s primary planets list and rebranded a dwarf planet.

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Pluto and its icy Kuiper Belt kin are believed to be relics left over from the formation of the solar system 4.6 billion years ago. The most recent image relayed from New Horizons and released on Saturday shows large, evenly spaced dark spots on the side of the Pluto that permanently faces its primary moon Charon. The spots are related to a dark belt that circles Pluto’s equatorial region.

“We’re seeing these crazy black-and-white patterns. We have no idea what those mean,” said New Horizons scientist John Spencer, also with the Southwest Research Institute. New Horizons will pass on the other side of Pluto, coming as close as 7,800 miles (12,500 km) and traveling at 30,800 mph (49,600 kph).

From there, New Horizons will continue to shoot deeper into the Kuiper Belt for a possible second mission to a Pluto cousin.

(Editing by Gareth Jones)

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Commentary

Why do conservatives hate Oberlin College so much?

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When I was an undergraduate at Oberlin in the mid-Aughts, there was a student in my class year who was obsessed with 19th-century British Royal Naval culture. Every Friday evening, he would host a sing-along in a dorm lounge, for which he would bring xeroxes of historical sea shanty lyrics and pass them around so that we could sing along, waving our glasses of “grog.” This was a semi-established event — he had distributed flyers around campus advertising the weekly British Royal Naval sea-shanty singalong and grog-drinking event, which would extend late into the night. Though he was not a resident of the dorm where it took place, he was welcomed into the lounge by its members, and became a fixture of sorts.Like many well-endowed liberal arts schools in rural areas, Oberlin College functions as a sort of de facto social welfare state, and is designed to encourage and cultivate one’s passions, even if they are not strictly academic. Thus, after writing up a proposal for the student-run activities board, the same student, the British Royal Navy culture guy, was able to plan, organize and execute a ticketed Royal Naval Ball, held in the atrium of the science center. The event featured 20 dishes of authentic British era-appropriate cuisine, cooked by student chefs, several courses of wine and port, and a violinist present to play period-specific music. The whole affair culminated with a traditional, British partner line dance — its sole inauthenticity the fact that we didn’t pay attention to our dance partners’ genders the way the Brits would have.
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2020 Election

WATCH: Katie Porter explains to constituents why her conscience demands support for Trump impeachment inquiry

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Congresswoman Katie Porter, in a video posted on social media Monday night, shared with residents of her purple California district why she is joining dozens of other Democrats who support launching an impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump.

"I didn't come to Congress to impeach the president," said the first-term representative. "But when faced with a crisis of this magnitude, I cannot with a clean conscience ignore my duty to defend the Constitution. I can't claim to be committed to rooting out corruption and putting people over politics and then not apply those same principles and standards in all of the work I do."

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A massive power outage like Argentina’s could happen in the US

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Argentina and Uruguay are recovering from nationwide power blackouts that cut electricity to tens of millions of people, including some in Paraguay, Chile and Brazil. The blackout’s cause is under investigation, but something similar could happen in the U.S. – and has.

On Aug. 14, 2003, a software bug contributed to a blackout that left 50 million people across nine U.S. northeastern states and a Canadian province without power. The outage lasted for as long as four days, with rolling blackouts in some areas for days after that.

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