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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.
This photo is a stack of 9 of the most detailed images that New Horizons took of 2014 MU69 just minutes before the spacecraft's closest approach. The images were taken 6.5 minutes before closest approach, on 1 January at 5:26 UT, when the spacecraft was 6,628 kilometers from MU69 and 6.6 billion kilometers from Earth.
New Horizons took the images for this crescent view of 2014 MU69 from a position 8,862 kilometers beyond it. To see such a thinly lit crescent so far from the Sun required long exposures, and the original images were blurred. Team members stacked 10 exposures and processed the result to remove the motion blur and present this sharp view.
The two lobes of 2014 MU69 are roughly circular in cross-section, so the simplest assumption was that they were spherical. Following New Horizons' flyby, it became clear that they are very non-spherical. The larger lobe is extremely flat, like a hamburger, and the smaller lobe is also squashed. The blue dotted lines indicate the uncertainty in the shape estimate; it could be less flat than the figure depicts, but still very flat.
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. In this version of the animation, brighter stars are marked with horizontal white lines. 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.