Pluto was a planet for 76 years until it was reclassified as a dwarf planet in 2006.
Pluto is now thought to be an object in the Kuiper Belt, a disc-shaped area of icy, dark objects beyond Neptune and has one large moon, Charon, and two much smaller moons, Nix and Hydra. In June 2011, Hubble spotted a fourth moon around Pluto that will be called S/2011 (134340) 1 for the time being.
NASA's New Horizons mission is scheduled to reach Pluto in 2015.
Photo: Pluto and its moons (NASA, ESA, H. Weaver (JHU/APL), A. Stern (SwRI), and the HST Pluto Companion Search Team)
Once a planet, Pluto is now a Kuiper Belt dwarf planet.
Now demoted to dwarf planet status, Pluto is still an important world.
Astronomer Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto in 1930 by meticulously comparing images of the night sky. Pluto held its planet status until 2006 when it was reclassified as a dwarf planet, one of many bodies orbiting in an area known as the Kuiper Belt. It is now known that Pluto does not mark the edge of the Solar System.
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Pluto, formal designation 134340 Pluto, is the second-most-massive known dwarf planet in the Solar System (after Eris) and the tenth-most-massive body observed directly orbiting the Sun.[i] Originally classified as the ninth planet from the Sun, Pluto was recategorized as a dwarf planet and plutoid owing to the discovery that it is only one of several large bodies within the Kuiper belt.[j]
Like other members of the Kuiper belt, Pluto is composed primarily of rock and ice and is relatively small, approximately one-sixth the mass of the Earth's Moon and one-third its volume. It has an eccentric and highly inclined orbit that takes it from 30 to 49 AU (4.4–7.4 billion km) from the Sun. This causes Pluto to periodically come closer to the Sun than Neptune. As of 2011, it is 32.1 AU from the Sun.
From its discovery in 1930 until 2006, Pluto was classified as a planet. In the late 1970s, following the discovery of minor planet 2060 Chiron in the outer Solar System and the recognition of Pluto's relatively low mass, its status as a major planet began to be questioned. In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, many objects similar to Pluto were discovered in the outer Solar System, notably the scattered disc object Eris in 2005, which is 27% more massive than Pluto. On August 24, 2006, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) defined what it means to be a "planet" within the Solar System. This definition excluded Pluto as a planet and added it as a member of the new category "dwarf planet" along with Eris and Ceres. After the reclassification, Pluto was added to the list of minor planets and given the number 134340. A number of scientists hold that Pluto should continue to be classified as a planet, and that other dwarf planets should be added to the roster of planets along with Pluto.
Pluto has five known moons, the largest being Charon, discovered in 1978, along with Nix and Hydra, discovered in 2005, and the provisionally named S/2011 (134340) 1, discovered in 2011, and S/2012 (134340) 1, discovered in 2012. "Vulcan" and "Cerberus" are proposed names, by popular vote, for the newly discovered moons. Pluto and Charon are sometimes described as a binary system because the barycenter of their orbits does not lie within either body. However, the IAU has yet to formalise a definition for binary dwarf planets, and as such Charon is officially classified as a moon of Pluto.
In 2015 the New Horizons spacecraft is due to provide humanity the first close look at Pluto and its moons, when it will perform a flyby of the system.