Friday, July 17, 2015

New Horizons' Epic Journey Arrives at Pluto

After a nine-and-a-half year journey following its launch from Earth, the New Horizons spacecraft arrived this week at the system of Pluto and its moons. The spacecraft just a quickly departed but will continue to transmit the treasures of pictures and data it collected for months to come. The few pictures already downlinked and released reveal amazing detail about Pluto and its largest moon Charon.

The mission was developed and operated for NASA by the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland. To review the mission activities and see continuing updates, check the New Horizons APL web site.

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. Image credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

The close-up image was taken about 1.5 hours before New Horizons closest approach to Pluto, when the craft was 47,800 miles (77,000 kilometers) from the surface of the planet. The image easily resolves structures smaller than a mile across.  Image credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

 This annotated view of a portion of Pluto’s Sputnik Planum (Sputnik Plain), named for Earth’s first artificial satellite, shows an array of enigmatic features.  Image credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

Remarkable new details of Pluto’s largest moon Charon are revealed in this image from New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI), taken late on July 13, 2015 from a distance of 289,000 miles (466,000 kilometers).  Image credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

I actually had a close encounter with New Horizons a few months before its launch. In September 2005, I was just assigned to the flight safety team for the final Shuttle servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope. We had some visitors from Johnson Space Center (JSC) in town for meetings and so I was able to tag along as they were given a tour of the giant clean room in Building 29 at Goddard Spaceflight Center to inspect Hubble hardware.

We entered the clean room dressed in "bunny suits" to prevent contamination of sensitive hardware. In the corner near the entrance, there was a modest size spacecraft mostly covered in bright gold insulating material. It was the New Horizons spacecraft, undergoing some tests at Goddard before being launched on its epic voyage to Pluto. As I stood there, tingles went up my spine as I realized that in a few months’ time, this machine just a few feet away from me would be screaming on its way to Pluto, the mysterious little world in the Outer Solar System that fascinated me since childhood.

Now, nearly ten years later, that little spacecraft has accomplished its closest approach to Pluto and its system of moons. Even after transmitting all of its Pluto mission data, the New Horizons mission will not be over. Scientists are already considering a plan to target one or more other Kuiper Belt Objects close enough to New Horizons' trajectory for possible close up examination. There's still a lot out there to explore.

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