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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 Planetary Society has always enjoyed the connections between science and art, so when I saw Leila Qışın's sketches pop up on her Twitter feed during the recent New Horizons team meeting, I knew I had to share them with you.
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.
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.
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.