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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.
Pluto is reluctant to give up its secrets. Last week at the American Geophysical Union meeting I attended sessions featuring results from the New Horizons mission, and most of the presentations could be summed up thusly: the data sets are terrific, but there are still a lot of Pluto features that have scientists scratching their heads.
For my first post on results from the Division for Planetary Sciences meeting, I'm going to tell you about Pluto's small moons: Styx, Nix, Kerberos, and Hydra, their bright colors and wacky rotation states.
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.
The solid-surfaced worlds of the solar system are made mostly of 3 materials: iron metal, silicate rock, and water ice. They differ in their proportions of these 3 materials, in whether the materials are differentiated into layers or mixed together, and in whether the materials are in solid or molten form. Iron is denser than rock, which is denser than water. So worlds made mostly of rock and iron have high density, while those made mostly of ice and rock have low density. Some outer solar system moons, notably Jupiter's Europa and Io, are made mostly of rock and metal, just like the Moon and the terrestrial planets. Most worlds that have lots of ice probably have internal oceans of liquid water. The largest worlds, Venus and Earth, have such high internal pressure from self-gravity that their materials are compressed to higher densities than they would have at surface pressure.
A montage of 18 of the 20 asteroids and comets that have been photographed up close as of December 2018, when New Horizons flew past Arrokoth. This version is in color but does not show the bodies at their correct relative albedo or brightness. Not included are Vesta or Ceres, both of which are many times larger than Lutetia.
Under a size cutoff of 10,000 kilometers, there are 2 planets, 18 or 19 moons, 1 or 2 asteroids, and approximately 100 known trans-Neptunian objects. All are shown to scale, keeping in mind that for most of the trans-Neptunian objects, their sizes are only approximately known. Names are only shown for those trans-Neptunian objects that have been formally named; the rest have year/letter coded designations.