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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.
New Horizons is rapidly approaching its New Year’s encounter with the most distant world ever visited, 2014 MU69. Closest approach will be at a distance of 3,500 kilometers at about 05:33 on 1 January UTC.
The Planetary Society has always enjoyed the connections between science and art, so when I saw Leila Qışın's sketches pop up on her Twitter feed during the recent New Horizons team meeting, I knew I had to share them with you.
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.
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.
New Horizons took the images for this crescent view of 2014 MU69 from a position 8,862 kilometers beyond it. To see such a thinly lit crescent so far from the Sun required long exposures, and the original images were blurred. Team members stacked 10 exposures and processed the result to remove the motion blur and present this sharp view.
The two lobes of 2014 MU69 are roughly circular in cross-section, so the simplest assumption was that they were spherical. Following New Horizons' flyby, it became clear that they are very non-spherical. The larger lobe is extremely flat, like a hamburger, and the smaller lobe is also squashed. The blue dotted lines indicate the uncertainty in the shape estimate; it could be less flat than the figure depicts, but still very flat.