In August, the International Astronomical Union downgraded Pluto to a dwarf planet. The panel of experts met to officially redefine the characteristics of a planet. To deliver the news to the distant orb about its newly lowered status, scientists at NASA's Kennedy Space Center launched a special messenger probe in September.
"It's tough, but we thought giving it to Pluto straight was the right thing to do," NASA Chief Engineer James Wood said. "After all, it put in 76 years as our ninth planet—it just didn't seem fair to break the news with an impersonal radio transmission beamed from Earth."
The Consoler probe is scheduled to reach Pluto in 2016. Upon landing on the planetoid's surface, the probe will relay to Pluto the news of its demotion, then orbit the tiny celestial body and radio messages of gratitude for its eons of planetary service to convince Pluto that it is still a highly valued part of the solar system's configuration.
"Pluto is more than 3.5 billion miles from the sun," Wood said. "Launching that probe felt like the best way to avoid alienating it any further."
Wood said Consoler will "take pains" to explain to Pluto that the reasons for the demotion "had nothing to do with anything it did personally."
"It was a great planet, and it will be a great dwarf planet," Wood said of Pluto's tenure. "No one is questioning its orbit around the sun, and of course Pluto's gravity and pressure gradient force is plenty sufficient to maintain hydrostatic equilibrium. Pluto still has three moons: Charon, Hydra and Nix. No one's going to take that away from it."
Scientists at NASA have taken precautions that word of the demotion will not reach Pluto before Consoler does. The New Horizons probe, which will pass by Pluto in July 2015, has been instructed to maintain radio silence. It is, however, programmed to congratulate nearby Eris and Ceres for their promotion from asteroids to dwarf planets.
"The Consoler probe will reach Pluto on a Friday, if our calculations are correct," Wood said. "It's always better to do this kind of thing right before the weekend."