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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.
As New Horizons passed by Jupiter, it saw Io move into Jupiter's shadow. With the Sun blocked from Io's surface, New Horizons could see the light emitted by Io's volcanoes. Each image in this 28-frame animation required an 8-second-long exposure to make the faint glow of the hot volcanoes visible. The long exposures also make background stars visible. There are a number of artifacts in these images. Large streaks across the photo and the generally bright background result from stray light entering LORRI's barrel -- sunlit Jupiter is not far outside LORRI's field of view, and its brilliant clouds are bouncing light into the camera optics. There is also a lot of "snow" from energetic particles striking the detector.
This animation consists of seven images of Europa returned during the New Horizons flyby. Europa grows in New Horizons' field of view as the spacecraft approaches, then its phase turns from full towards a crescent as the spacecraft passes by.
As New Horizons approached 2014 MU69 between 31 December 2018 at 20:00 UT and 1 January 2019 at 05:01 (UT), it captured a set of images to observe the little world's rotation. This movie includes 15 such images (as many as had been downlinked by 15 January) and covers about half a rotation as New Horizons closed from a distance of 500,000 to only 28,000 kilometers. Over that range, the image scale decreased from 2.5 kilometers per pixel to 140 meters per pixel.