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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.
Highlights this month include the impending arrival of Juno at Jupiter, the approval of extended missions for all of NASA's solar system spacecraft, and public data releases from Rosetta, New Horizons, and Cassini.
May 2016 will be yet another month of fairly routine operations across the solar system -- if you can ever use the word "routine" to describe autonomous robots exploring other planets. ExoMars' cruise to Mars has started smoothly, and Juno is only two months away from Jupiter orbit insertion. Earthlings will witness a Mercury transit of the Sun on May 9.
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.
As Director of Space Policy, Casey leads the strategic planning and implementation of the Society's policy- and advocacy-related efforts. He works closely with the Society's leadership, the Board of Directors, and other policy experts to craft the organizational positions and generate ideas about the future of space exploration.
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.
This composite image shows a sliver of Pluto's large moon, Charon, and all four of Pluto's small moons, as resolved by the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) on New Horizons. All the moons are displayed with a common intensity stretch and spatial scale (see scale bar). Charon is by far the largest of Pluto's moons, with a diameter of 1,212 kilometers. Nix and Hydra have comparable sizes, approximately 40 kilometers across in their longest dimension above. Kerberos and Styx are much smaller and have comparable sizes, roughly 10-12 kilometers across in their longest dimension. All four small moons have highly elongated shapes, a characteristic thought to be typical of small bodies in the Kuiper Belt.
Under a size cutoff of 10,000 kilometers, there are two planets, 18 or 19 moons, 1 or 2 asteroids, and 87 trans-Neptunian objects, most of which do not yet have names. All are shown to scale, keeping in mind that for most of the trans-Neptunian objects, their sizes are only approximately known.