Saturday, November 16, 2013

Pluto Ho! Close Encounter Just Two Years Away

Artist concept of New Horizons spacecraft. Credit: Johns Hopkins
University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute (JHUAPL/SwRI)

Hurtling toward the Pluto system at 33,000 mph, NASA’s New Horizons probe was briefly awakened from electronic hibernation earlier this month to go through a full dress rehearsal for the July 2015 flyby.

With eight cameras and four spectrometers running on an anemic 30 watts of power, New Horizons is “the most sophisticated payload ever sent on a first reconnaissance mission,” said principal investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute during a presentation at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., on July 23.

Stern emphasizes that this is a mission of superlatives. New Horizons is the fastest manmade object ever built. It is not only reaching the farthest classical planet in the solar system, but also surveying a new class of binary world.

There is little doubt that Pluto could have fascinating weather and geology, and serve as a Rosetta stone for the history of the solar system’s vast outer rim. This region, called the Kupier belt, contains countless icy bodies — perhaps 900 others the size of Pluto.

The marathon flight will complete our initial reconnaissance of the solar system that began over 50 years ago at the dawn of the Space Age. There will never be another time like this in the history of mankind.

Yes, we’ve sent orbiters and landers to follow in the track of the trailblazing probes like Voyager and Pioneer. But to people under age 30 today, the Pluto mission will be their first — and maybe last — experience at the thrill of seeing a new world close-up for the first time. The last planetary flyby was of Neptune in the summer of 1989 by Voyager 2.

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