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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.
Now that New Horizons is regularly sending back data, the mission is settling into a routine of releasing a set of captioned images on Thursdays, followed by raw LORRI images on Friday. The Thursday releases give us the opportunity to see lovely color data from the spacecraft's Ralph MVIC instrument. This week, the newly available color data set covered Charon.
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.
New Horizons took the seven images for this mosaic across Charon near its closest approach, at about 11:48 UTC on July 14, 2015. Because of New Horizons' high relative speed, exposures were kept short (only 10 milliseconds), making the images grainy. The swath cuts across a huge variety of terrain on Charon, including pitted terrain and "mountains in a moat" at left; a smoother area at center, featuring some branching linear features; the north/south dichotomy scarp; and splashy impact craters at right.
Styx is Pluto's innermost small moon, and one of the last discovered (along with Kerberos). New Horizons took this photo from a distance of 631,000 kilometers, 12.5 hours out from Pluto closest approach. The image does not reveal any details but shows that Styx is very small indeed: in this image it appears about 5 by 7 kilometers in size.
Pluto’s haze layer shows its blue color in this picture taken by the New Horizons Ralph/Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC). The high-altitude haze is thought to be similar in nature to that seen at Saturn’s moon Titan. The source of both hazes likely involves sunlight-initiated chemical reactions of nitrogen and methane, leading to relatively small, soot-like particles (called tholins) that grow as they settle toward the surface. This image was generated by software that combines information from blue, red and near-infrared images to replicate the color a human eye would perceive as closely as possible.