Tomorrow Is A Day For Pluto!

Specifically, tomorrow there are two NASA Socials for the New Horizons mission to Pluto, which will arrive and flyby Pluto on July 14th.

One of tomorrow’s Socials will be in Maryland at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (JHUAPL), where the New Horizons science instruments are being managed. The other Social tomorrow will be in Flagstaff, Arizona at the Lowell Observatory, where Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto in 1930.

I will not be at either of these NASA Socials, much as I would like to be. (Hey, you can’t go to them all, at least not without much larger financial resources than I have.) However, there are a lot of friends I’ve met at previous NASA Socials who will be there, as well as other ways to keep track of what’s going on, and that’s what I’m here to fill you in on.

First of all, even if you don’t have the time to follow tomorrow’s Socials, there’s a great New Horizons website at NASA, as well as one at JHUAPL. Both have a lot of information about the New Horizons mission, its current status, the plans for when it arrives at Pluto, the pictures and data it collects there, and the plans for where New Horizons might go after the Pluto encounter.

Already the fuzzy images coming back from New Horizons are better than the best we’ve ever seen before. Those images came from the Hubble Space Telescope, but with Pluto being smaller than our moon and (on average) over three billion miles away, Hubble can’t see much. As we get closer and closer to July 14th, the pictures we see will get better and better.

New Horizons will fly by Pluto at over 30,000 miles an hour, taking thousands of pictures and weeks of data on its other instruments. However, we won’t see all of them right away. Because Pluto is so far away and the signal from New Horizons is so faint, data can only be sent slowly. The data rates will be less than an old 9600 baud modem. It will take almost eighteen months after the Pluto encounter before all of the data has been sent back to Earth.

Those are the basics. Count on getting more information here as we get closer to July 14th.

Would there be enough sunlight to allow you to read a newspaper or a map if you were sitting out on the surface of on Pluto? Most people think that, being so far out from the Sun, Pluto must be dark as pitch all the time. But that’s not really true. If you go to NASA’s “Pluto Time” website and enter your location, you’ll find out what time the lighting level at your location will be approximately the same as it would be on Pluto at noon. This “Pluto time” moment will occur twice a day, thirty to sixty minutes before sunrise or thirty to sixty minutes after sunset. If you want to share, take a picture and upload it to the NASA site or onto Twitter with the hashtag #PlutoTime.

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Our “Pluto time” tonight was 20:08, thirty minutes after sunset. Dusky, a bit dim, but you could most certainly read a paper or walk around without any vision problems.

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The temperature, on the other hand, would be a bit chillier. Here it was about 68°F, on Pluto it would be more like 387°F, over four hundred degrees colder.

Do you want to fly around near Pluto and its moons? (Or anywhere else in the solar system, as well.) There’s a fantastic site available for free from NASA & JPL that will let you do that on your computer. “Eyes On The Solar System” is a truly detailed and accurate simulator, an excellent way to spend hours and hours.

For tomorrow’s NASA Socials, the simplest way to stay updated is by using Twitter. Follow @NASA, @NASASocial, and the #NASASocial and #PlutoFlyby hashtags. If you want a list of the Twitter handles of people who will be there, see my Twitter feed (@momdude56) from earlier today. I sent out a series of a dozen or so tweets that listed who (to the best of my knowledge) was going to be where.

Finally, a portion of tomorrow’s NASA Socials will be televised on NASA-TV. Tune in at 13:00 EDT (10:00 PDT) for that. If you want to ask questions for that televised events, use the hashtag #askNASA.

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There you’ve got it! We’re kicking off the first detailed view of Pluto as we get to just 38 days out from the closest approach to Pluto. There will be plenty to see and follow tomorrow if you’re able, even if I won’t be there to bring it to you.

And we got through all of that without even once getting into the whole, “Is Pluto a planet or a ‘dwarf planet’?” argument!

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