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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.
New Horizons is back in action after going quiet for a period of solar conjunction following the 1 January flyby of 2014 MU69 (informally nicknamed "Ultima Thule"). The spacecraft is returning new data, as exemplified by these images.
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.
Casey is the public face of The Planetary Society's efforts to advance planetary exploration, planetary defense, and the search for life. He is a trusted expert in space policy and works to demystify the political and policy processes behind space exploration.
This high-resolution swath of Pluto sweeps over the cratered plains at the west of the New Horizons’ encounter hemisphere and across numerous prominent faults, skimming the eastern margin of the dark, forbidding region informally known as Cthulhu Regio, and finally passing over the mysterious, possibly cryovolcanic edifice Wright Mons, before reaching the terminator or day-night line. Among the many notable details shown are the overlapping and infilling relationships between units of the relatively smooth, bright volatile ices from Sputnik Planum (at the edge of the mosaic) and the dark edge or “shore” of Cthulhu. The pictures in this mosaic were taken by the Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) in “ride-along” mode with the LEISA spectrometer, which accounts for the ‘zigzag’ or step pattern. Taken shortly before New Horizons’ July 14, 2015 closest approach to Pluto, details as small as 500 meters can be seen. (NOTE: Click on the image and ZOOM IN for optimal viewing.)
This photo is a stack of 9 of the most detailed images that New Horizons took of 2014 MU69 just minutes before the spacecraft's closest approach. The images were taken 6.5 minutes before closest approach, on 1 January at 5:26 UT, when the spacecraft was 6,628 kilometers from MU69 and 6.6 billion kilometers from Earth.
New Horizons took the images for this crescent view of 2014 MU69 from a position 8,862 kilometers beyond it. To see such a thinly lit crescent so far from the Sun required long exposures, and the original images were blurred. Team members stacked 10 exposures and processed the result to remove the motion blur and present this sharp view.