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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.
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.