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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.
On approach to the Pluto system in July 2015, the cameras on NASA's New Horizons spacecraft captured images of the largest of Pluto's five moons, Charon, rotating over the course of a full day. The best currently available images of each side of Charon taken during approach have been combined to create this view of a full rotation of the moon.
Charon – like Pluto – rotates once every 6.4 Earth days. The photos were taken by the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) and the Ralph/Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera from July 7-13, as New Horizons closed in over a range of 10.2 million kilometers. The more distant images contribute to the view at the 9 o'clock position, with few of the signature surface features (such as the cratered uplands, canyons, or rolling plains of the informally named Vulcan Planum) visible. The side New Horizons saw in most detail, during closest approach on July 14, 2015, is at the 12 o'clock position.
These images and others like them reveal many details about Charon, including how similar looking the encounter hemisphere is to the so-called “far side” hemisphere seen only at low resolution – which is the opposite of the situation at Pluto. Dimples in the bottom (south) edge of Charon's disk are artifacts of the way the New Horizons images were combined to create these composites.
On approach to Pluto in July 2015, the cameras on NASA's New Horizons spacecraft captured the planet rotating over the course of a full Pluto day. The best available images of each side of Pluto taken during approach have been combined to create this view of a full rotation.
Pluto’s day is 6.4 Earth days long. The images were taken by the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) and the Ralph/Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera as the distance between New Horizons and Pluto decreased from 8 million kilometers on July 7 to only ~645,000 kilometers on July 13. The more distant images contribute to the view at the 3 o'clock position, with the top of the heart-shaped, informally named Tombaugh Regio slipping out of view and giving way to the side of Pluto that was facing away from New Horizons during closest approach on July 14. The side New Horizons saw in most detail – what the mission team calls the “encounter hemisphere” – is at the 6 o'clock position.
These images and others like them reveal many details about Pluto, including the differences between the encounter hemisphere and the so-called “far side” hemisphere seen only at lower resolution. Dimples in the bottom (south) edge of Pluto's disk are artifacts of the way the images were combined to create these composites.
Most inner moons in the solar system keep one face pointed toward their central planet; this animation shows that certainly isn’t the case with the small moons of Pluto, which behave like spinning tops. Pluto is shown at center with, in order from closest to farthest orbit, its moons Charon, Styx, Nix, Kerberos and Hydra.
At the time of closest approach to Pluto, Nix was on the same side of Pluto as New Horizons; all the other moons were farther away. Consequently, New Horizons' best images of smaller moons are of Nix. Note that the moment of closest approach is not the same as the moment of the moon-plane crossing. When New Horizons crossed the plane containing the moons' orbits, it was at a distance from Pluto near Charon's orbit.