Pluto 2015: A Space Odyssey

Out there in the furthest reaches of our solar system lies our far-flung cosmic neighbor, a small world that has endured a decade of oppression and struggle and received the verdict of planetary excommunication, just for being different. But despite 8 years of being shunned from planet-ness, Pluto has remained strong and hasn’t given up. Now, after 9.5 years, this brave world awaits the arrival of a spacecraft from the very same people that demoted it.

The New Horizons spacecraft was launched in early 2006. The fastest spaceship ever launched, it has now passed the orbits of Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune and is scheduled to perform a flyby of our outcast neighbor in a few hours. But, the journey itself was a very remarkable one. The spacecraft took great photos of the asteroid 132524 APL in mid 2006 and encountered Jupiter later in the year. At about 2 million kilometres from Jupiter, the spacecraft was able to dip in the gravity well of the gas giant and received a gravity assist to achieve suitable velocity, cutting down its Pluto trip by 3 years. In the process, the spacecraft sent valuable information about Jupiter, its atmospheric conditions, and some of its moons.

Asteroid 132524 APL as viewed by New Horizons in mid 2006
Asteroid 132524 APL as viewed by New Horizons in mid 2006 Credit: NASA
Jupiter as viewd by New Horizon's LORRI in early 2007
Jupiter as viewd by New Horizon’s LORRI in early 2007 Credit: NASA

In a series of hibernation cycles with a checkup on systems for two months every year, New Horizons had its control systems shut down so as to cut down on costs. Pluto was finally getting closer. In mid 2013, using its LOng Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI), New Horizons was able to identify Pluto’s giant moon Charon and demarcate it as a separate object, with a later animation of a full orbital rotation of Charon and Pluto around each other in 2014. In late 2014, the Atacama Large Millimeter observatory on Earth made very precise measurements to pinpoint Pluto’s location and orbit around the sun, so as to get ready for the ensuing flyby, which is to happen shortly. In late 2014, the spacecraft got a wake up call to set off on this remarkable Pluto encounter.

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2013 images by New Horizon’s LORRI resolve Pluto and Charon as separate objects Credit: NASA
2013 images by New Horizon's LORRI resolve Pluto and Charon as separate objects  Credit: NASA
Full orbital rotation of Pluto and Charon around each other. Credit: NASA

At 200 million km away from Pluto, the spacecraft took long-exposure images where, for the first time, the moons Nix and Hydra were visible. By May 2015, it had captured all of Pluto’s satellites, spotted Kerberos and Styx for the first time.

Hydra (yellow) and Nix (orange), first visible in February 2015
Hydra (yellow) and Nix (orange), first visible in February 2015 Credit: NASA
Styx visible in second and third images. Kerberos is visible in all of them. 90 km away from Pluto.  Credit: NASA
Styx visible in second and third images. Kerberos is visible in all of them. 90 km away from Pluto.
Credit: NASA
The full set. Pluto and its moons. A composite photo.  Credit: NASA
The full set. Pluto and its moons. A composite photo.
Credit: NASA

After finally, after nine years and three billion miles, in just a few hours, the spacecraft will zip past Pluto and its five moons, making its closest approach at about 12,500 km on July 14th at 7:49AM ET and ending two hours later but due to signal delays, we will not know of the mission’s success until hours later.

I absolutely cannot wait, even if it is merely hours away. Watch it on NASA TV at http://www.nasa.gov/multimedia/nasatv/

Featured image of Pluto courtesy of NASA: Never-before-seen craters come into focus. Photo taken on July 12th at 2.5 million km away. It’s bigger than I thought!

UPDATE!!

Final colour image before New H Horizons went silent for the flyby, 12472 km from Pluto  Credit: NASA
Final colour image before New H Horizons went silent for the flyby, 12472 km from Pluto
Credit: NASA
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