After nine years, Pluto is finally ready for its closeup

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The fastest spacecraft ever launched, New Horizons has been approaching Pluto for more than nine years. 
Illustration: NASA, JHUAPL, SWRI The fastest spacecraft ever launched, New Horizons has been approaching Pluto for more than nine years. Illustration: NASA, JHUAPL, SWRI

January 19, 2006 was a clear and sunny Thursday on the coast of Cape Canaveral, Florida. Before a backdrop of bright blue skies, translucent clouds, and salty waves lapping the Atlantic shore, a small spaceship the size of a baby grand piano levitated off the ground, bringing excitement after two prior attempts failed earlier that week.

Rocking free from its base on earth, NASA’s New Horizons spaceship soared vertically into the air. Plumes of exhaust formed giant clouds of smoke as a stream of fire propelled the rocket into the sky, an American flag flapped in the wind nearby.

The fastest spacecraft ever launched, The New Horizons mission was simple but had lofty goals: To travel 3 billion miles (4.8 billion km) into the depths of the solar system to show the inhabitants of earth a glimpse of the frozen surface of Pluto. At the time, Pluto was still considered a planet – it wouldn’t be demoted to a dwarf planet until August of that year.

Nearly a decade later, on Tuesday, July 14, 2015, New Horizons will finally fulfill its mission.

Photo by NASA. With the blue Atlantic Ocean as backdrop, smoke and steam fill the launch pad, at right, as NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft roars into the sky aboard an Atlas V rocket. January 19, 2006

Photo by NASA. With the blue Atlantic Ocean as backdrop, smoke and steam fill the launch pad, at right, as NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft roars into the sky aboard an Atlas V rocket. January 19, 2006

The spacecraft is scheduled to whiz past Pluto traveling 30,000 miles an hour (48,000 kph), presenting never before seen snapshots of the surface of the dwarf planet.

Weighing less than 1,000 pounds (about the size of an adult male polar bear), the spacecraft  will come closest to Pluto at 7:49 a.m. EDT (1149 GMT) on Tuesday. At that moment, New Horizons will pass within 7,767 miles (12,500 kilometers) of Pluto.

The scientists at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland will most certainly be celebrating – the lab designed and built New Horizons for NASA and manages its navigation throughout the solar system.

INSIDE NEW HORIZONS:

Meet the seven key instruments aboard New Horizons that are collecting data and transmitting the info back to Earth. Some instruments also serve as backups should others fail during the mission.

Credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

Illustration by NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute.

Ralph: Visible and infrared imager/spectrometer — provides color, composition and thermal maps.

Alice: Ultraviolet imaging spectrometer — analyzes composition and structure of Pluto’s atmosphere and looks for atmospheres around Charon and Kuiper Belt Objects.

REX: (Radio Science EXperiment) — Measures atmospheric composition and temperature; passive radiometer.

LORRI: (Long Range Reconnaissance Imager) telescopic camera — obtains encounter data at long distances, maps Pluto’s far side and provides high resolution geologic data.

SWAP: (Solar Wind Around Pluto) Solar wind and plasma spectrometer — measures atmospheric “escape rate” and observes Pluto’s interaction with solar wind.

PEPSSI: (Pluto Energetic Particle Spectrometer Science Investigation) Energetic particle spectrometer — measures the composition and density of plasma (ions) escaping from Pluto’s atmosphere.

SDC: (Student Dust Counter) — Built and operated by students, it measures the space dust peppering New Horizons during its voyage across the solar system.

Scientists won’t be absolutely certain of success until Tuesday night when New Horizons makes communication with Earth, 13 hours after its closest encounter with Pluto. The most intimate images of Pluto won’t be available until Wednesday, and all the data won’t be available until October 2016.

Pluto actually resembles a mini solar system unto itself. Pluto is slightly smaller than our moon, and its moon, Charon, is just over half Pluto’s size. There’s also a number of baby moons in orbit: Nix, Hydra, Kerberos and Styx. At 8:03 a.m. New Horizons will zoom within 17,931 miles (28,856 kilometers) of Charon, Pluto’s jumbo moon. The spaceship will observe each known moon and keep an eye peeled for even more.

A portrait from the final approach. Pluto and Charon display striking color and brightness contrast in this composite image from July 11, showing high-resolution black-and-white LORRI images colorized with Ralph data collected from the last rotation of Pluto. Color data being returned by the spacecraft now will update these images, bringing color contrast into sharper focus. Credits: NASA-JHUAPL-SWRI

A NASA-JHUAPL-SWRI portrait from the final approach. Pluto and Charon display color and brightness in this composite image from July 11, showing high-resolution black-and-white LORRI images colorized with Ralph data collected from the last rotation of Pluto. Color data from the spacecraft now will update these images, bringing color contrast into sharper focus.

The event will mark the final act in NASA’s mission of exploring every planet in our solar system since 1962, starting with Venus. Pluto’s photo-shoot also serendipitously falls on the 50th anniversary of the first-ever trip past Mars by Mariner 4.

The photos promise to be the biggest planetary unveiling in a quarter-century, collecting 5,000 times the amount of data as the first Mars flyby. The last big show was when NASA’s Voyager 2 provided insight on Neptune in 1989.

Pluto has tantalized astronomers since its 1930 discovery by Clyde Tombaugh using the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona. The only American to discover a planet, some of Tombaugh’s ashes are aboard New Horizons and his two children, now in their 70s, plan to be at Johns Hopkins for the encounter.

PLUTONIAN TIDBITS:

  • Pluto takes 248 years to go around the sun (The Earth, one). Pluto has made it only a third of the way around the sun in the past 85 years.
  • The amount of sunlight that reaches Pluto is so dim that high noon looks like twilight on Earth.
  • Signals take 4½ hours to travel one-way between New Horizons and flight controllers in Maryland.
  • Pluto is only 1,400 miles (2,300 kilometers) wide, about half the width of the United States. Pluto is slightly smaller than Earth’s moon.
  • One day on Pluto is about 6½ days on Earth.
  • Pluto was named by an 11-year-old girl from England.
  • The temperature on Pluto can reach nearly 400 degrees below zero and has an atmosphere rich in Nitrogen.
  • Pluto was demoted from a planet to a dwarf planet because a larger planet-like object was found in the solar system, named Eris. This caused astronomers to re-evaluate the attributes of a planet. Controversially, Pluto did not make the cut.

Story compiled with information from NASA and Associated Press.

  • Ellielhyne Ramirez

    I am so amazed when I read this. Now I am so much interested to our solar system. Thank you to those genius guys who brought to us this kind of info’s.