New Horizons on the Approach and a Contest to Name Pluto Surface Features
It’s exciting to think that we are now just a few weeks away from getting some of the first, clearest, and most detailed images of Pluto. The New Horizons mission will soon be close enough to start returning images similar in scope and detail to the first close-up images ever returned of distant worlds when the Voyagers swept past Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune in the late 1970s and 1980s.
Right now, Pluto’s still a large dot in the distance, and the spacecraft has been able to image its small moons Nyx and Hydra. That’s going to get better, of course. I talked with Alan Stern, PI of the New Horizons mission, and as you can imagine, he’s pretty psyched about it, even though the target is still not quite close enough to see good stuff. He’s Pluto Hugger #1, and has dedicated his career to this mission. So, it’s perfectly acceptable to find him excited and bouncing around about what the team will find. “In April, it’ll be a globe to us, and we’ll be about 70 million miles away from it,” he said, pointing out that he and the team have been speculating for years about what they’ll find.
At only a few pixels across in the best Hubble images, Pluto hasn’t been easily giving up its secrets. But, soon New Horizons will show us what it really looks like, and Alan and the team will find out more about the planet’s atmosphere as well as its surface. “Pluto is a very reflective world—in much the same way fresh snow is,” he said. “We see from Hubble and other images that the surface has markings. Some are red, others are more neutral in color. We know there’s hydrogen ice there, and methane and ethane, and carbon monoxide ice. How cratered is it? Is there any activity going on there? What’s the geology of this planet? Those are all questions we’re going to have to wait to answer when New Horizons gets there in July.”
Alan has a fascinating blog on the New Horizons web page called PI’s Perspectives, and he’s been writing all along about the mission, what the team hopes to accomplish, and how the spacecraft works. You can’t get a better look at this last major planetary encounter than through Alan’s eyes, so check it out.
In case you are just starting to follow the New Horizons mission, here are a few facts about it. First, it’s been on the way to Pluto since launch on January 19, 2006. It’s traveling at a velocity (with respect to the Sun) of 14.58 kilometers per second (just over 9 miles per second). It will arrive for a Pluto flyby on July 14, 2015 11:49:57 UTC.
Right now, it takes just about 9 hours to send a round-trip message to the spacecraft and back. Mission controllers are communicating with New Horizons through the NASA Deep Space Network station Canberra, Australia, using the 70-meter antenna. You can track New Horizons communications at the Deep Space Network NOW page.
At Pluto, the spacecraft will continue its image- and data-taking routines, snapping images of the surface and moons, and measuring Pluto’s temperature, atmospheric composition, and other characteristics.
Right now (March, 2015) the spacecraft controllers are going through tuning routines for the instruments, and just did a course correction maneuver using an engine burn to fine-tune the spacecraft’s final trajectory toward the Pluto flyby. After it “threads the needle” past the Pluto system, New Horizons heads out further into the Kuiper Belt (a region of space stretching out beyond the orbit of Neptune and populated with many small worlds) and a possible encounter with two more worlds discovered by Hubble Space Telescope in 2014.
Keep an eye out on this little spacecraft that’s about to make some of the biggest discoveries in the outer solar system! The best way to do that is to check the New Horizons page every few days and see what the spacecraft team is doing and finding!
Want to get involved in some cool citizen science at Pluto? The Seti Institute, along with the New Horizons team, is inviting public input on surface feature names for Pluto. The name of the campaign is Our Pluto and the idea is to come up with surface feature names in advance to help the science team out. The campaign runs from now til April 7, so get on over there and contribute to the Pluto naming effort! Join Alan, and me, and many others in a big “group hug” for Pluto!