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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.
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.
Casey is the public face of The Planetary Society's efforts to advance planetary exploration, planetary defense, and the search for life. He is a trusted expert in space policy and works to demystify the political and policy processes behind space exploration.
New Horizons captured this sequence of images with its LORRI camera during the first week after its flyby of the Pluto system. This animation has been aligned on stars faintly visible in the background. Pluto's path appears to curve against the background stars because of the gravitational influence of Charon; the two similar-sized worlds mutually orbit a point well outside of Pluto, rotating around the system barycenter once in seven days. Charon is not visible in the animation initially because it is out of frame, and later because its thin crescent is too faint.
New Horizons took this stunning image of Pluto only a few minutes after closest approach on July 14, 2015. The image was obtained at a high phase angle -- that is, with the sun on the other side of Pluto, as viewed by New Horizons. Seen here, sunlight filters through and illuminates Pluto's complex atmospheric haze layers. The southern portions of the nitrogen ice plains informally named Sputnik Planum, as well as mountains of the informally named Norgay Montes, can also be seen across Pluto's crescent at the top of the image. Looking back at Pluto with images like this gives New Horizons scientists information about Pluto's hazes and surface properties that they can't get from images taken on approach. The image was obtained by Ralph MVIC approximately 21,550 kilometers from Pluto, about 19 minutes after New Horizons' closest approach. The image has a resolution of 430 meters per pixel. Pluto's diameter is 2,374 kilometers.
Every spacecraft that has visited Jupiter has traced a different path past or around the giant planet. Here's 43 years of Jupiter drive-bys, compressed to a couple of minutes. Learn more here. (Story by Chris Crockett; animation by Sean Kelley; production by Helen Thompson.)