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Nearly ten years after its launch, the New Horizons spacecraft will reach its closest encounter with Pluto on July 14, 2015. NASA and the world science community will celebrate the landmark at the Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) at Johns Hopkins University, as well as at “PlutoPalooza” events around the world.
Three months ago, I posted an article explaining what to expect during the flyby. This is a revised version of the same post, with some errors corrected, the expected sizes of Nix and Hydra updated, and times of press briefings added.
The team reported two weeks ago that the first attempts at observing 2014 MU69 were unsuccessful. But in their third try, on July 17, astronomers in Argentina saw the telltale sign of MU69's presence: a stellar wink.
What's ahead for our intrepid space explorers in 2017? It'll be the end of Cassini, but not before the mission performs great science close to the rings. OSIRIS-REx will fly by Earth, and Chang'e 5 will launch to the Moon, as a host of other spacecraft continue their ongoing missions.
Cassini is going to make a major change to its orbit, getting much close to Saturn, setting up 20 "F-ring" orbits. ExoMars will get two science orbits before beginning aerobraking. Long March 5 will have its first launch, while many Earth-observing missions, including Himawari-9 and GOES-R, will go up. But Juno science is on hold.
New Horizons—what will be NASA’s greatest success of 2015—was cancelled multiple times in its early life, and many times before that in its previous incarnations. A mission to Pluto was not inevitable, despite the overwhelming scientific and public excitement.
As Director of Space Policy, Casey leads the strategic planning and implementation of the Society's policy- and advocacy-related efforts. He works closely with the Society's leadership, the Board of Directors, and other policy experts to craft the organizational positions and generate ideas about the future of space exploration.
This high-resolution swath of Pluto sweeps over the cratered plains at the west of the New Horizons’ encounter hemisphere and across numerous prominent faults, skimming the eastern margin of the dark, forbidding region informally known as Cthulhu Regio, and finally passing over the mysterious, possibly cryovolcanic edifice Wright Mons, before reaching the terminator or day-night line. Among the many notable details shown are the overlapping and infilling relationships between units of the relatively smooth, bright volatile ices from Sputnik Planum (at the edge of the mosaic) and the dark edge or “shore” of Cthulhu. The pictures in this mosaic were taken by the Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) in “ride-along” mode with the LEISA spectrometer, which accounts for the ‘zigzag’ or step pattern. Taken shortly before New Horizons’ July 14, 2015 closest approach to Pluto, details as small as 500 meters can be seen. (NOTE: Click on the image and ZOOM IN for optimal viewing.)
This recently received panchromatic image of Pluto’s small satellite Nix taken by the Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC) aboard New Horizons is one of the best images of Pluto’s third-largest moon generated by the NASA mission. Taken on July 14, 2015 at a range of about 23,000 kilometers from Nix, the illuminated surface is about 19 kilometers by 47 kilometers. The unique perspective of this image provides new details about Nix’s geologic history and impact record.
On three occasions in June and July 2017, New Horizons mission team members attempted to track a small, distant Kuiper Belt object, 2014 MU69, as it passed in front of a star – an event known as an occultation. The colored lines mark the path of the star as seen from different telescopes on each day; the blank spaces on those lines indicate the few seconds when MU69 blocked the light from the star. Scientists are using these observations to craft a picture of MU69 and any companion bodies. This diagram was drawn before the discovery of a few bugs in the astrometry software. Fixing those bugs and improvements in Hubble image reduction brought the main body of MU69 closer to its astrometry-predicted position and brought the single SOFIA "blip" closer to the main body.