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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.
January 24 was the 30th anniversary of the Voyager flyby of Uranus. Uranian moons have been on my mind ever since New Horizons sent us close-up images of Charon. On the occasion of the anniversary, Ted Stryk produced latest-and-greatest versions of the Voyager views of these worlds.
Pluto is reluctant to give up its secrets. Last week at the American Geophysical Union meeting I attended sessions featuring results from the New Horizons mission, and most of the presentations could be summed up thusly: the data sets are terrific, but there are still a lot of Pluto features that have scientists scratching their heads.
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 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.
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.)
As New Horizons approached 2014 MU69 between 31 December 2018 at 20:00 UT and 1 January 2019 at 05:01 (UT), it captured a set of images to observe the little world's rotation. This movie includes 15 such images (as many as had been downlinked by 15 January) and covers about half a rotation as New Horizons closed from a distance of 500,000 to only 28,000 kilometers. Over that range, the image scale decreased from 2.5 kilometers per pixel to 140 meters per pixel.
Four images taken on 31 December 2018 document the rotation and increasing apparent size of 2014 MU69 (informally nicknamed "Ultima Thule") to New Horizons. The top row shows the images as returned from the spacecraft. In the bottom row, the images have been "deconvolved," processed to correct for the known properties of the camera optics to reveal more detail. In all the images, the little world's binary shape, bright neck region, and mottled surface are clearly visible.