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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.
The New Horizons mission has formally selected its next target after Pluto: a tiny, dim, frozen world currently named 2014 MU69. The spacecraft will perform a series of four rocket firings in October and November to angle its trajectory to pass close by 2014 MU69 in early January 2019. In so doing, New Horizons will become the first flyby craft to pass by a target that was not discovered before the spacecraft launched.
It has been a difficult wait for new New Horizons images, but the wait is almost over; Alan Stern announced at today's Outer Planets Advisory Group meeting that image downlink will resume September 5. In the meantime, a few space fans are making the most of the small amount of data that has been returned to date.
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.
This enhanced color mosaic combines some of the sharpest views of Pluto that NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft obtained during its July 14, 2015 flyby. The pictures are part of a sequence taken near New Horizons’ closest approach to Pluto, with resolutions of about 77-85 meters per pixel – revealing features smaller than half a city block on Pluto’s surface. Lower resolution color data (at about 630 meters, per pixel) were added to create this new image.
The images form a strip 80 kilometers wide, trending (top to bottom) from the edge of “badlands” northwest of the informally named Sputnik Planum, across the al-Idrisi mountains, onto the shoreline of Pluto’s “heart” feature, and just into its icy plains. They combine pictures from the telescopic Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) taken approximately 15 minutes before New Horizons’ closest approach to Pluto, with – from a range of only 17,000 kilometers – with color data (in near-infrared, red and blue) gathered by the Ralph/Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC) 25 minutes before the LORRI pictures.
On approach to the Pluto system in July 2015, the cameras on NASA's New Horizons spacecraft captured images of the largest of Pluto's five moons, Charon, rotating over the course of a full day. The best currently available images of each side of Charon taken during approach have been combined to create this view of a full rotation of the moon.
Charon – like Pluto – rotates once every 6.4 Earth days. The photos were taken by the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) and the Ralph/Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera from July 7-13, as New Horizons closed in over a range of 10.2 million kilometers. The more distant images contribute to the view at the 9 o'clock position, with few of the signature surface features (such as the cratered uplands, canyons, or rolling plains of the informally named Vulcan Planum) visible. The side New Horizons saw in most detail, during closest approach on July 14, 2015, is at the 12 o'clock position.
These images and others like them reveal many details about Charon, including how similar looking the encounter hemisphere is to the so-called “far side” hemisphere seen only at low resolution – which is the opposite of the situation at Pluto. Dimples in the bottom (south) edge of Charon's disk are artifacts of the way the New Horizons images were combined to create these composites.
On approach to Pluto in July 2015, the cameras on NASA's New Horizons spacecraft captured the planet rotating over the course of a full Pluto day. The best available images of each side of Pluto taken during approach have been combined to create this view of a full rotation.
Pluto’s day is 6.4 Earth days long. The images were taken by the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) and the Ralph/Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera as the distance between New Horizons and Pluto decreased from 8 million kilometers on July 7 to only ~645,000 kilometers on July 13. The more distant images contribute to the view at the 3 o'clock position, with the top of the heart-shaped, informally named Tombaugh Regio slipping out of view and giving way to the side of Pluto that was facing away from New Horizons during closest approach on July 14. The side New Horizons saw in most detail – what the mission team calls the “encounter hemisphere” – is at the 6 o'clock position.
These images and others like them reveal many details about Pluto, including the differences between the encounter hemisphere and the so-called “far side” hemisphere seen only at lower resolution. Dimples in the bottom (south) edge of Pluto's disk are artifacts of the way the images were combined to create these composites.
Most inner moons in the solar system keep one face pointed toward their central planet; this animation shows that certainly isn’t the case with the small moons of Pluto, which behave like spinning tops. Pluto is shown at center with, in order from closest to farthest orbit, its moons Charon, Styx, Nix, Kerberos and Hydra.