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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 back in action after going quiet for a period of solar conjunction following the 1 January flyby of 2014 MU69 (informally nicknamed "Ultima Thule"). The spacecraft is returning new data, as exemplified by these images.
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.
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.
The New Horizons team is sharing its data from the MU69 encounter relatively quickly after acquisition on the APL website. This is a montage of representative raw images, and is up-to-date as of 3 January 2019. Over time, as New Horizons returns more data, the sequence will be filled in.
The left picture is a color image taken by New Horizons' Ralph MVIC instrument. The middle one is a LORRI image taken near the same time. The right image combines the two. It is an enhanced color image, featuring infrared, red, and blue channels. It was taken at a distance of 137,000 kilometers on 1 January 2019 at 04:08 UT, slightly more than an hour before closest approach. Note the reduced red coloring at the neck of the object.