Scientists prepare for historic Pluto ‘flyby’

An artist’s concept illustration of New Horizons passing by Pluto and Charon. New Horizons is expected to fly by Pluto and its moons in July. (Photo Credit: NASA, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute)

(MEDIA GENERAL) – Astronomy enthusiasts, take note. NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft is three months from an “unprecedented flyby” of Pluto.

The exploratory spacecraft is expected to return the first-ever close-up images and scientific observations of Pluto and its system of moons.

“In an unprecedented flyby this July, our knowledge of what the Pluto systems is really like will expand exponentially, and I have no doubt there will be exciting discoveries,” said John Grunsfeld, astronaut and associate administrator of the NASA Science Mission Directorate at the agency’s headquarters in Washington D.C.

New Horizons is hailed by NASA as the fastest spacecraft ever launched. It has traveled a longer time and farther away than any successful space mission in history – more than nine years and 3 billion miles, respectively. The spacecraft is designed to gather information as quickly as possible, taking in data 100 times faster than it can be processed. While high-priority datasets will be sent back to Earth just before and after the flyby, the spacecraft will return data for an additional 16 months.

Here are three goals of the New Horizons mission:

Get “up close” to Pluto

Astronomers have gathered lots of unique information on our solar system’s smallest planet since its discovery in 1930, scientists have yet to get “up close” to Pluto.

“Scientific literature is filled with papers on the characteristics of Pluto and its moons from ground-based and Earth-orbiting space observations, but we’ve never studied Pluto up close and personal,” Grunsfeld said.

The New Horizons flyby concludes a concept that began more than 50 years ago. “Up close” missions targeted Venus and Mars in the early 1960s, and moved on to Mercury, Jupiter and Saturn in the 1970s and Uranus and Neptune in the 1980s.

“This is pure exploration; we’re going to turn points of light into a planet and a system of moons before your eyes!” said Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator from the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colorado. “This 21st century encounter is going to be an exploration bonanza unparalleled in anticipation since the storied missions of Voyager in the 1980s.”

Charon and the smaller moons

When the New Horizons mission was started in 2001, the goal of the mission was to research Pluto and its moon, Charon. Since then, four smaller moons have been discovered, and the New Horizons mission hopes to gather more information on the moon system.

Charon particularly piques the interest of many NASA researchers. The moon may hold its own atmosphere and an interior ocean.

“There’s no doubt, Charon is a rising star in terms of scientific interest, and we can’t wait to reveal it in detail in July,” said Leslie Young, deputy project specialist at SwRI.

What else is out there?

So after Pluto, what’s next? The New Horizons spacecraft will continue to study the Kuiper Belt, the zone of the solar system that houses several small planets out beyond Neptune’s orbit. Pluto is the largest known planet in the Kuiper Belt.

“New Horizons is one of the great explorations of our time,” New Horizons Project Scientist Hal Weaver said. “There’s so much we don’t know – not just about Pluto, but other worlds like it. We’re not rewriting textbooks with this historic mission – we’ll be writing them from scratch.”

Pluto facts

  • Pluto, a dwarf planet, was discovered in 1930 by Clyde W. Tombaugh, an American.
  • It has five known moons: Charon, Nix, Hydra, Kerberos and Styx.
  • On average, Pluto is more than 3.6 billion miles away from the sun – about 40 times as far from the sun as Earth. Pluto has an oval orbit, meaning its distance from the sun varies depending on its position in its orbit.
  • Scientists believe Pluto is covered in ice and its surface temperature is somewhere between 375 and 400 degrees Fahrenheit below zero.
  • Pluto is slightly smaller than the Earth’s moon. The dwarf planet is only 1,400 miles wide – about half the width of the United States.
  • Due to Pluto’s size, it has about one-fifteen the gravity of Earth. Meaning a person weighing 100 pounds on Earth would weigh only 7 pounds on Pluto.

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