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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.
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.
On February 28, 2007, New Horizons took this picture of Jupiter with MVIC, its color imaging instrument. Due to the nature of these observations, the Red, Blue, and NIR channels were completely saturated (they appeared bright white with no detail), but the narrow-band methane channel was well-exposed. As part of some instrument calibration work, New Horizons team member Alex Parker re-processed this archival Jupiter data using the latest approaches we developed after studying the Pluto flyby data. The new processing approach results in substantial detail enhancement.
This map contains data from New Horizons' color imager, Ralph MVIC, in a version processed about a year after the Pluto flyby. The color map shows strong variations in Pluto's color with latitude, from its orangish north to its pinkish midlatitudes to its very dark equatorial band, with Sputnik planitia sitting athwart the band.