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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 has "phoned home" as expected, 4 hours after its closest approach to 2014 MU69. Its brief transmission contained no science data, but gave the scientists welcome news: New Horizons has successfully pulled off the most distant flyby ever.
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.
Artist's impression of the New Horizons spacecraft encountering a Kuiper Belt Object, as part of a potential extended mission after the Pluto flyby. In 2014, using the Hubble Space Telescope, New Horizons science team members discovered three KBOs - all in the range of 20-55 kilometers across, and all with possible flyby dates in late 2018 or in 2019 - a billion miles beyond Pluto. Any extended mission would require NASA approval.
On August 16, 2018, New Horizons used its Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) to take 48 photos of the spot in space where navigators hoped to spy 2014 MU69. Each exposure lasted 30 seconds, the longest possible with LORRI. The left image merges those 48 photos. The predicted position of the Kuiper Belt object is at the red crosshair at the center, just above and to the left of a nearby star that is approximately 17 times brighter. The right image is a magnified view of the region in the yellow box, after subtraction of a background star field "template" taken by LORRI in September 2017 before it could detect the object itself. 2014 MU69 is clearly detected in this star-subtracted image and is very close to where scientists predicted. At the time of these observations, 2014 MU69 was 172 million kilometers from the New Horizons spacecraft and 6.5 billion kilometers from the Sun. The star that appears practically on top of 2014 MU69 is 4.56 kiloparsecs away.