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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.
At left is a composite of two images taken by New Horizons' high-resolution Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI), which provided the best indication of 2014 MU69's size and shape available before the encounter. Preliminary measurements of this Kuiper Belt object suggest it is approximately 35 by 15 kilometers. An artist's impression at right illustrates one possible appearance of the object, based on the actual image at left. The direction of its spin axis is indicated by the arrows.
The 9 images in this animation include 6 taken on 29 December from a distance of about 4 million kilometers and 3 taken on 30 December from a distance of about 2 million kilometers. They have been brightened and aligned on background stars to help identify which dot is 2014 MU69, New Horizons' flyby target.
Between August and December 2018, New Horizons took optical navigation photos of the tiny Kuiper belt object 2014 MU69 to improve navigators' predictions of its future path. At first, the world didn't move much against the background of stars, but as New Horizons got within tens of millions of kilometers in December, the position appeared to shift more and more rapidly. These images are very long exposures in order to make faint stars visible. MU69 is not yet resolved in any of them; its light spreads over many pixels but the object itself is smaller than a pixel, so it's not possible to discern its shape yet.
This image shows the first detection of 2014 MU69 (nicknamed "Ultima Thule"), using the highest resolution mode (known as "1x1") of the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) aboard the New Horizons spacecraft. Three separate images, each with an exposure time of 0.5 seconds, were combined to produce the image shown here. All three images were taken on 24 December 2018 at 01:56 UT spacecraft time and were downlinked to Earth about 12 hours later. The original images are 1024 x 1024 pixels, but only a 256 x 256 pixel portion, centered on MU69 (circled in orange), is displayed. The other objects visible in this image are nearby stars. At the time this image was taken, MU69 was 4 billion miles (6.5 billion kilometers) from the Sun and 6.3 million miles (10 million kilometers) from the New Horizons spacecraft. Previous LORRI images required using its lower resolution mode ("4x4"), which has one-quarter the resolution of 1x1 mode, and longer exposure times, 30 seconds each, for the images taken from mid-August through early December 2018. Higher-resolution images taken within a range of 10 million kilometers will enable better optical navigation to the small Kuiper belt object as well as higher-spatial-resolution searches for any nearby moons.