Tuesday, July 14, 2015

NASA's New Horizons Spacecraft Makes a Historic Flyby of Pluto

Guests and New Horizons team members countdown to the spacecraft's closest approach to Pluto, Tuesday, July 14, 2015 at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft is at Pluto. 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. At 7:49 AM EDT on Tuesday, July 14, New Horizons sped past Pluto at 30,800 miles per hour (49,600 kilometers per hour), with a suite of seven science instruments. “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.”

As planned, New Horizons went incommunicado as it hurtled through the Pluto-Charon system busily gathering data. The New Horizons team will breathe a sigh of relief when New Horizons “phones home” at approximately 9:02 p.m. EDT on July 14. The mission to the icy dwarf planet completes the initial reconnaissance of the solar system.

“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."



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.

At about 4 p.m. EDT on July 13 - some 16 hours before closest approach - New Horizons captured this stunning image of one of Pluto's most dazzling and dominant features. The “heart,” estimated to be 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) across at its widest point, rests just above the equator. (The angle of view displays mostly the northern hemisphere.) The heart’s diameter is about the same distance as from Denver to Chicago, in America’s heartland.

Pluto nearly fills the frame in this image from the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) aboard NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, taken on July 13, 2015, when the spacecraft was 476,000 miles (768,000 kilometers) from the surface. This is the last and most detailed image sent to Earth before the spacecraft’s closest approach to Pluto on July 14. The color image has been combined with lower-resolution color information from the Ralph instrument that was acquired earlier on July 13.   This view is dominated by the large, bright feature informally named the “heart,” which measures approximately 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) across. The heart borders darker equatorial terrains, and the mottled terrain to its east (right) is complex. However, even at this resolution, much of the heart’s interior appears remarkably featureless—possibly a sign of ongoing geologic processes.   Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute
Pluto nearly fills the frame in this image from the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) aboard NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, taken on July 13, 2015, when the spacecraft was 476,000 miles (768,000 kilometers) from the surface. This is the last and most detailed image sent to Earth before the spacecraft’s closest approach to Pluto on July 14. The color image has been combined with lower-resolution color information from the Ralph instrument that was acquired earlier on July 13. This view is dominated by the large, bright feature informally named the “heart,” which measures approximately 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) across. The heart borders darker equatorial terrains, and the mottled terrain to its east (right) is complex. However, even at this resolution, much of the heart’s interior appears remarkably featureless—possibly a sign of ongoing geologic processes. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

The newest image from the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) shows an almost perfectly shaped left half of a bright, heart-shaped feature centered just above Pluto’s equator, while the right side of the heart appears to be less defined.

The image shows for the first time that some surfaces on Pluto are peppered with impact craters and are therefore relatively ancient, perhaps several billion years old. Other regions, such as the interior of the heart, show no obvious craters and thus are probably younger, indicating that Pluto has experienced a long and complex geological history. Some craters appear partially destroyed, perhaps by erosion. There are also hints that parts of Pluto’s crust have been fractured, as indicated by the series of linear features to the left of the heart.

New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern of Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), Boulder, CO., left, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) Director Ralph Semmel, center, and New Horizons Co-Investigator Will Grundy Lowell Observatory hold a print of an U.S. stamp with their suggested update since the New Horizons spacecraft has explored Pluto, Tuesday, July 14, 2015 at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland. Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)
New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern of Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), Boulder, CO., left, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) Director Ralph Semmel, center, and New Horizons Co-Investigator Will Grundy Lowell Observatory hold a print of an U.S. stamp with their suggested update since the New Horizons spacecraft has explored Pluto, Tuesday, July 14, 2015 at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland. Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

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.

Members of the New Horizons science team react to seeing the spacecraft's last and sharpest image of Pluto before closest approach later in the day, Tuesday, July 14, 2015 at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland. Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)
Members of the New Horizons science team react to seeing the spacecraft's last and sharpest image of Pluto before closest approach later in the day, Tuesday, July 14, 2015 at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland. Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

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.”

“My prediction was that we would find something wonderful, and we did. This is proof that good things really do come in small packages,” he added.

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.

NASA Senior Public Affairs Officer Dwayne Brown, standing left, closes a New Horizons media briefing as NASA Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate John Grunsfeld, seated left, New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern of Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), Boulder, CO., center, and New Horizons Mission Operations Manager Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) Alice Bowman wave the American flag shortly after the New Horizons spacecraft’s closest approach to Pluto, Tuesday, July 14, 2015 at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland. Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)
NASA Senior Public Affairs Officer Dwayne Brown, standing left, closes a New Horizons media briefing as NASA Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate John Grunsfeld, seated left, New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern of Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), Boulder, CO., center, and New Horizons Mission Operations Manager Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) Alice Bowman wave the American flag shortly after the New Horizons spacecraft’s closest approach to Pluto, Tuesday, July 14, 2015 at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland. Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

The New Horizons mission to visit the dwarf planet is "a triumph of engineering and the laws of physics," the famed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson told NBC Nightly News, comparing the feat to "threading a needle from New York to Los Angeles."

“This mission is a big deal for humankind. The interest in this part of the Solar System couldn’t be higher. Who hasn’t wondered what Pluto is like? Congratulations to the project team and thanks to citizens everywhere who supported it, said Bill Nye (The Science Guy), CEO at The Planetary Society."There’s a lot of space between us— the Earth and this distant world, and New Horizons has crossed it. For the first time, we all see what’s out there up close. This is an extraordinary moment: reaching the next unexplored frontier in our Solar System. Through the power of people— scientists, legislators, and inspired space enthusiasts— our dream to explore our beloved dwarf planet is a reality.”

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.”

New Horizons has also obtained impressive new images of Pluto and its large moon Charon that highlight their compositional diversity. These are not actual color images of Pluto and Charon—they are shown here in exaggerated colors that make it easy to note the differences in surface material and features on each planetary body.

This July 13, 2015, image of Pluto and Charon is presented in false colors to make differences in surface material and features easy to see. It was obtained by the Ralph instrument on NASA's New Horizons spacecraft, using three filters to obtain color information, which is exaggerated in the image. These are not the actual colors of Pluto and Charon, and the apparent distance between the two bodies has been reduced for this side-by-side view.  The image reveals that the bright heart-shaped region of Pluto includes areas that differ in color characteristics. The western lobe, shaped like an ice-cream cone, appears peach color in this image. A mottled area on the right (east) appears bluish. Even within Pluto's northern polar cap, in the upper part of the image, various shades of yellow-orange indicate subtle compositional differences.   The surface of Charon is viewed using the same exaggerated color. The red on the dark northern polar cap of Charon is attributed to hydrocarbon materials including a class of chemical compounds called tholins. The mottled colors at lower latitudes point to the diversity of terrains on Charon.  This image was taken at 3:38 a.m. EDT on July 13, one day before New Horizons' closest approach to Pluto.   Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute
This July 13, 2015, image of Pluto and Charon is presented in false colors to make differences in surface material and features easy to see. It was obtained by the Ralph instrument on NASA's New Horizons spacecraft, using three filters to obtain color information, which is exaggerated in the image. These are not the actual colors of Pluto and Charon, and the apparent distance between the two bodies has been reduced for this side-by-side view. The image reveals that the bright heart-shaped region of Pluto includes areas that differ in color characteristics. The western lobe, shaped like an ice-cream cone, appears peach color in this image. A mottled area on the right (east) appears bluish. Even within Pluto's northern polar cap, in the upper part of the image, various shades of yellow-orange indicate subtle compositional differences. The surface of Charon is viewed using the same exaggerated color. The red on the dark northern polar cap of Charon is attributed to hydrocarbon materials including a class of chemical compounds called tholins. The mottled colors at lower latitudes point to the diversity of terrains on Charon.This image was taken at 3:38 a.m. EDT on July 13, one day before New Horizons' closest approach to Pluto. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

The images were obtained using three of the color filters of the “Ralph” instrument on July 13 at 3:38 am EDT. New Horizons has seven science instruments on board the spacecraft—including “Ralph” and “Alice”, whose names are a throwback to the “Honeymooners,” a popular 1950s sitcom.

“These images show that Pluto and Charon are truly complex worlds. There's a whole lot going on here,” said New Horizons co-investigator Will Grundy, Lowell Observatory, Flagstaff, Arizona. “Our surface composition team is working as fast as we can to identify the substances in different regions on Pluto and unravel the processes that put them where they are.”

On Wednesday, July 15, more images of surface close-ups will make the more than four-hour journey to Earth at the speed of light to give Pluto fans details as small as New York’s Central Park.

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.

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