Tuesday, July 14, 2015

NASA's New Horizons spacecraft is at Pluto.

One of the final images taken before New Horizons made its closest approach to Pluto on 14 July 2015. Image Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

After a decade-long journey through our solar system, New Horizons made its closest approach to Pluto Tuesday, about 7,750 miles above the surface -- roughly the same distance from New York to Mumbai, India - making it the first-ever space mission to explore a world so far from Earth.
"I'm delighted at this latest accomplishment by NASA, another first that demonstrates once again how the United States leads the world in space," said John Holdren, assistant to the President for Science and Technology and director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. "New Horizons is the latest in a long line of scientific accomplishments at NASA, including multiple missions orbiting and exploring the surface of Mars in advance of human visits still to come; the remarkable Kepler mission to identify Earth-like planets around stars other than our own; and the DSCOVR satellite that soon will be beaming back images of the whole Earth in near real-time from a vantage point a million miles away. As New Horizons completes its flyby of Pluto and continues deeper into the Kuiper Belt, NASA's multifaceted journey of discovery continues."
"The exploration of Pluto and its moons by New Horizons represents the capstone event to 50 years of planetary exploration by NASA and the United States," said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. "Once again we have achieved a historic first. The United States is the first nation to reach Pluto, and with this mission has completed the initial survey of our solar system, a remarkable accomplishment that no other nation can match."
Per the plan, the spacecraft currently is in data-gathering mode and not in contact with flight controllers at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physical Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland. Scientists are waiting to find out whether New Horizons "phones home," transmitting to Earth a series of status updates that indicate the spacecraft survived the flyby and is in good health. The "call" is expected shortly after 9 p.m. tonight.
The Pluto story began only a generation ago when young Clyde Tombaugh was tasked to look for Planet X, theorized to exist beyond the orbit of Neptune. He discovered a faint point of light that we now see as a complex and fascinating world.
"Pluto was discovered just 85 years ago by a farmer's son from Kansas, inspired by a visionary from Boston, using a telescope in Flagstaff, Arizona," said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. "Today, science takes a great leap observing the Pluto system up close and flying into a new frontier that will help us better understand the origins of the solar system."

New Horizons' flyby of the dwarf planet and its five known moons is providing an up-close introduction to the solar system's Kuiper Belt, an outer region populated by icy objects ranging in size from boulders to dwarf planets. Kuiper Belt objects, such as Pluto, preserve evidence about the early formation of the solar system.
New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colorado, says the mission now is writing the textbook on Pluto.

"The New Horizons team is proud to have accomplished the first exploration of the Pluto system," Stern said. "This mission has inspired people across the world with the excitement of exploration and what humankind can achieve."

New Horizons' almost 10-year, three-billion-mile journey to closest approach at Pluto took about one minute less than predicted when the craft was launched in January 2006. The spacecraft threaded the needle through a 36-by-57 mile (60 by 90 kilometers) window in space -- the equivalent of a commercial airliner arriving no more off target than the width of a tennis ball.

Because New Horizons is the fastest spacecraft ever launched - hurtling through the Pluto system at more than 30,000 mph, a collision with a particle as small as a grain of rice could incapacitate the spacecraft. Once it reestablishes contact Tuesday night, it will take 16 months for New Horizons to send its cache of data - 10 years' worth -- back to Earth.

New Horizons is the latest in a long line of scientific accomplishments at NASA, including multiple rovers exploring the surface of Mars, the Cassini spacecraft that has revolutionized our understanding of Saturn and the Hubble Space Telescope, which recently celebrated its 25th anniversary. All of this scientific research and discovery is helping to inform the agency's plan to send American astronauts to Mars in the 2030's.
"After nearly 15 years of planning, building, and flying the New Horizons spacecraft across the solar system, we've reached our goal," said project manager Glen Fountain at APL "The bounty of what we've collected is about to unfold."
APL designed, built and operates the New Horizons spacecraft and manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate. SwRI leads the mission, science team, payload operations and encounter science planning. New Horizons is part of NASA's New Frontiers Program, managed by the agency's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.
Follow the New Horizons mission on Twitter and use the hashtag #PlutoFlyby to join the conversation. Live updates also will be available on the mission Facebook page.
For more information on the New Horizons mission, including fact sheets, schedules, video and images, visit:





The above link is to a NASA animation which combines various observations of Pluto over the course of several decades.

The first frame is a digital zoom-in on Pluto as it appeared upon its discovery by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930 (image courtesy Lowell Observatory Archives). Note: This image is property of the Lowell Observatory Archives. Any public use requires written permission of the Lowell Observatory Archives.

The other images show various views of Pluto as seen by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope beginning in the 1990s and NASA's New Horizons spacecraft in 2015. The final sequence zooms in to this close-up frame of Pluto released by NASA on July 15, 2015.

Mountains on Pluto
A new close-up image of an equatorial region near the base of Pluto’s bright heart-shaped feature shows a mountain range with peaks jutting as high as 11,000 feet (3,500 meters) above the surface of the icy body. The mountains on Pluto likely formed no more than 100 million years ago -- mere youngsters in a 4.56-billion-year-old solar system. This suggests the close-up region, which covers about one percent of Pluto’s surface, may still be geologically active today. 

“This is one of the youngest surfaces we’ve ever seen in the solar system,” said Jeff Moore of the New Horizons Geology, Geophysics and Imaging Team (GGI) at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California.

Complete source list for the above animation,  in order with image credits:
Clyde Tombaugh, Lowell Observatory, 1930: http://solarsystem.nasa.gov/multimedia/display.cfm?IM_ID=19989

Hubble Space Telescope, 1996: http://hubblesite.org/newscenter/archive/releases/solar-system/pluto/199...
Hubble Space Telescope, 1994: http://hubblesite.org/newscenter/archive/releases/solar-system/pluto/199...
Hubble Space Telescope, 2011: http://hubblesite.org/newscenter/archive/releases/solar-system/pluto/201...
Hubble Space Telescope, 2002-2003: http://hubblesite.org/newscenter/archive/releases/solar-system/pluto/201...
New Horizons, April 9, 2015: http://pluto.jhuapl.edu/Multimedia/Science-Photos/image.php?page=6&galle...
New Horizons, May 12, 2015: http://pluto.jhuapl.edu/Multimedia/Science-Photos/image.php?page=6&galle...
New Horizons, June 2, 2015: http://pluto.jhuapl.edu/Multimedia/Science-Photos/image.php?page=5&galle...
New Horizons, June 15, 2015: http://pluto.jhuapl.edu/Multimedia/Science-Photos/image.php?page=5&galle...
New Horizons, July 1, 2015: http://pluto.jhuapl.edu/Multimedia/Science-Photos/image.php?page=4&galle...
New Horizons, July 3, 2015: http://pluto.jhuapl.edu/Multimedia/Science-Photos/image.php?page=4&galle...
New Horizons, July 8, 2015: http://pluto.jhuapl.edu/Multimedia/Science-Photos/image.php?page=3&galle...
New Horizons, July 10, 2015: http://pluto.jhuapl.edu/Multimedia/Science-Photos/image.php?page=3&galle...
New Horizons, July 11, 2015: http://pluto.jhuapl.edu/Multimedia/Science-Photos/image.php?page=2&galle...
New Horizons, July 13, 2015: http://pluto.jhuapl.edu/Multimedia/Science-Photos/image.php?page=1&galle...
New Horizons, July 14, 2015: http://pluto.jhuapl.edu/Multimedia/Science-Photos/image.php?page=1&galle...
New Horizons, July 15, 2015: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7iyd-gh2rhM
Last Updated: July 15, 2015
Editor: Rob Garner
Tags:  Dwarf Planets, Goddard Space Flight Center, New Horizons, Pluto, Solar System

1 comment:

  1. To the immense relief of the men and women who had built it and then flung it into deep space, the robotic probe sent a brief stream of data, received shortly before 9 p.m., confirming that it had survived the close pass of the dwarf planet. “We have a healthy spacecraft. We’ve recorded data in the Pluto system. And we’re outbound from Pluto,” Alice Bowman, the mission operations manager, announced to her thrilled colleagues in the control room at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, the home of New Horizons.