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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 is back in action after going quiet for a period of solar conjunction following the 1 January flyby of 2014 MU69 (informally nicknamed "Ultima Thule"). The spacecraft is returning new data, as exemplified by these images.
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.
Just over 24 hours before its closest approach to Kuiper Belt object 2014 MU69, New Horizons sent back the first images that began to reveal its shape. The original images have a pixel size of 10 kilometers not much smaller than Ultima’s estimated size of 30 kilometers, so the object is only about 3 pixels across (left panel). However, image-sharpening techniques combining multiple images show that it is elongated, perhaps twice as long as it is wide (right panel). This shape roughly matches the outline of 2014 MU69's shadow that was seen in observations of the object passing in front of a star made from Argentina in 2017 and Senegal in 2018.
At left is a composite of two images taken by New Horizons' high-resolution Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI), which provided the best indication of 2014 MU69's size and shape available before the encounter. Preliminary measurements of this Kuiper Belt object suggest it is approximately 35 by 15 kilometers. An artist's impression at right illustrates one possible appearance of the object, based on the actual image at left. The direction of its spin axis is indicated by the arrows.
The 9 images in this animation include 6 taken on 29 December from a distance of about 4 million kilometers and 3 taken on 30 December from a distance of about 2 million kilometers. They have been brightened and aligned on background stars to help identify which dot is 2014 MU69, New Horizons' flyby target.
Between August and December 2018, New Horizons took optical navigation photos of the tiny Kuiper belt object 2014 MU69 to improve navigators' predictions of its future path. At first, the world didn't move much against the background of stars, but as New Horizons got within tens of millions of kilometers in December, the position appeared to shift more and more rapidly. These images are very long exposures in order to make faint stars visible. MU69 is not yet resolved in any of them; its light spreads over many pixels but the object itself is smaller than a pixel, so it's not possible to discern its shape yet.