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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—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.
On three occasions in June and July 2017, New Horizons mission team members attempted to track a small, distant Kuiper Belt object, 2014 MU69, as it passed in front of a star – an event known as an occultation. The colored lines mark the path of the star as seen from different telescopes on each day; the blank spaces on those lines indicate the few seconds when MU69 blocked the light from the star. Scientists are using these observations to craft a picture of MU69 and any companion bodies. This diagram was drawn before the discovery of a few bugs in the astrometry software. Fixing those bugs and improvements in Hubble image reduction brought the main body of MU69 closer to its astrometry-predicted position and brought the single SOFIA "blip" closer to the main body.
On July 17, 2017 at 03:50 UTC, members of the New Horizons science team successfully observed Kuiper belt object 2014 MU69 passing in front of a background star in the constellation Sagittarius. The 24 frames in this animation were separated by 0.2 seconds apiece. In each 0.2 seconds, the shadow of 2014 MU69 passed 4 kilometers across Earth's surface. Observations like these will allow the team to constrain the size and position of the New Horizons mission's flyby target, improving the precision of their encounter planning. This animation has been processed from the originally published version to reduce noise and align the star field.