Pluto Space At P-2

Things are starting to happen fast aboard New Horizons.

Today New Horizons sent us its final photos of Pluto and Charon (below) before closest approach. Tonight, as we speak, it’s downlinking the “failsafe” data that it took in the last twenty-four hours. If something catastrophic happens and destroys or incapacitates New Horizon, at least we’ll have that.

But catastrophic events are not going to happen. New Horizon is deep into its pre-programmed series of thousands of commands which orchestrate a delicate ballet of twists, turns, and data collection runs. New Horizon has seven instruments in addition to its two cameras, and all of them will be taking turns looking at Pluto, Charon, the other four tiny moons, and looking for any new moons that might be found. For the next two weeks it’s nothing but go, go, go, go, go, go for New Horizons.

New Horizons’ closest approach to Pluto will happen at 07:49:57 EDT (03:49:57 PDT). With a light travel time of over four hours to Pluto, we wouldn’t know what happened until nearly noon – if we were communicating with New Horizon at the time of closest approach. But we’re not.

New Horizons can’t point at Pluto to take pictures and science data without turning away from Earth. It needs to point at Earth to send or receive radio signals. Since it can’t do both at the same time, all of the efforts during closest approach are directed toward collecting data and pictures. Once New Horizon is safely past Pluto and things don’t have to happen quite as fast, then it will turn back to Earth and start sending us the data. That will happen late Tuesday night.

Ultimately this experience won’t be quite like all of the previous planetary flybys and landings where we could watch live as the first pictures come down and get displayed, one after another. For example, from Mars, when Curiosity, Spirit, Opportunity, and Viking landed, there were dozens of pictures within an hour or two. But Mars is only about twelve light-minutes away, and it’s “easy” to get a high data transmission rate.

Pluto is much, much, much further away so that signal is vastly more faint than those coming from Mars. This means that the data rate is much slower in order to make sure that the data is received accurately. Where landers, orbiters, and rovers on Mars transmit pictures and data in almost realtime, it will take us well over a year to receive all of the data and pictures that New Horizons will collect.

Fortunately, New Horizons has a lot of data storage capacity, much more than on the Voyagers or even the more recent spacecraft such as MESSENGER or Cassini. All of the data collected should be safe onboard New Horizons until there’s time to have it downlinked to Earth. We’ll just have to be patient. It took decades to get New Horizons approved, funded, and built. It took over nine years after launch to get New Horizons to Pluto. We can handle waiting while data is trickled down to us from deep space beyond Pluto.


Here are some tools and resources to help you in follow along and keep up:

The New Horizons mission is being run by the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (JHUAPL). Their primary New Horizons website is good for lots of in-depth information and background stories, as well as an archive of past New Horizons photos.

The New Horizons is a NASA mission, of course. Their primary New Horizons website is probably the best place to see new images and get news first – assuming you’re not getting them even sooner by following folks on Twitter.

If you’re on Twitter, follow (in addition to ME of course, @momdude56):

  • @NASANewHorizons   (the official NASA feed)
  • @NewHorizons   (run out of JHUAPL by New Horizons’ principal investigator, Alan Stern)
  • @EmilyLakduwalla  (reporter/blogger from the Planetary Society, absolutely one of the best)
  • @AlanStern   (the personal account for Alan Stern)
  • @Alex_Parker   (New Horizons team member)
  • @kennicosmith   (New Horizons team member, SWRI)
  • @DrPhiltill   (New Horizons team member, UCF Florida Space Institute)
  • @gummyshark   (New Horizons team member, SWRI)
  • @joelwmparker   (New Horizons team member, SWRI)
  • @AmandaZangari   (New Horizons team member, SWRI)
  • @AscendingNode   (New Horizons team member, SWRI)
  • @GliderHero   (New Horizons team member, SWRI)
  • @joshkammer   (New Horizons team member, SWRI)
  • @AstroCook   (New Horizons team member, SWRI)
  • @colkin   (New Horizons team member)
  • @CarlyHowett   (New Horizons team member)
  • @verbiscer   (New Horizons team member)
  • @PlanetDr   (JHUAPL scientist who works on Titan research)
  • @astVintageSpace   (New Horizons team member)
  • @plutokiller   (JPL/CalTech astronomer who led drive to recategorize Pluto as a dwarf planet)
  • @RonBaalke   (JPL scientist)
  • @Astroguyz   (NASA Social tweep & space program blogger)
  • @Pillownaut   (NASA Social tweep & space program blogger)
  • @BadAstronomer (Slate blogger, one of the best science bloggers)
  • @coreyspowell   (Scientific American editor)
  • @tariqjmalik   (Space.com editor)

Actually, that’s not a bad starter list of folks to follow if you’re just getting onto Twitter and want to follow what’s going on in space.


As briefings and news conferences are held over the next week, you can see them all live on NASA-TV, on your cable system or online. You can also get an updated schedule on news conferences and events being shown on NASA-TV. Currently there are events schedule for tomorrow (Monday, July 13th) at 10:30 EDT, then on Tuesday morning (July 14th) at 05:30 EDT, 07:30, 08:00, 09:15, and 21:00 EDT.

That last one, 21:00 EDT on Tuesday night, will be the one where we’ll first get data back from New Horizons post-flyby, i.e., the do-or-die moment when we find out if New Horizon survived the close flyby and did what it was programmed to do. Not only will we find out if the encounter was a success, we’ll also start getting some of the very high resolution pictures that will be orders of magnitude more detailed than the pictures we’ve seen so far.


The NASA/JPL “Eyes On The Solar System” app is an amazing, free program for your PC, Mac, iOS, Android, or Linux device. Install it and you’ll find a way to virtually cruise anywhere in the entire solar system. It’s almost like a video game, or a super-duper Google Earth for trillions of cubic miles of space. You can have it help you find things, you can explore on your own, or you can hit one of the buttons to have it take you right to a probe such as New Horizons, Cassini, or Dawn.

NASA Eyes Visualization

Image: NASA / JPL Eyes On The Solar System

The basic view (shown) shows how far out you are, how long to go (“Are we there yet?”), how fast, and what the (simulated) view is. In addition, in that window in the upper right it will show you which instruments are active and what they’re looking at as New Horizons steps through its program.

Also from this NASA/JPL site you can see what’s happening on the Deep Space Network, live at any time. You can look at an overview, or keep track of communications with a particular probe, or antenna, or see a world map showing the DSN. For example…

Deep Space Network Now

Image: NASA / JPL Deep Space Network Now

…right now all of the antennas at Goldstone in California are talking to New Horizons. You’ll be seeing that a lot over the next few days. I suspect that Rosetta, Curiosity, the various Mars Orbiters, Dawn, Cassini, and all of the other spacecraft out there might be on some sort of minimal contact schedules for the next couple of days.


The final pictures prior to the encounter were downlinked today. Released late this afternoon, the pictures of Pluto and Charon are starting to show some amazing detail.

2015-07-12 Pluto

Photo: NASA / JHUAPL / SWRI

This will be the last picture we see of Pluto’s “far side,” since all of the closeup pictures during the encounter will be on the side opposite from this. We don’t know what those four dark areas are down near the bottom, nor the hexagonal-shaped structures. Is that an impact crater at about the four o’clock position? It might be decades before we get back to Pluto with an orbiter to find out.

2015-07-12 Pluto Annotated

Photo: NASA / JHUAPL / SWRI

2015-07-12 Charon

Photo: NASA / JHUAPL / SWRI

Charon is coming into view as well, with impact craters, canyons, and chasms now visible. From here it only gets better.

2015-07-12 Charon Annotated

Photo: NASA / JHUAPL / SWRI

“SWRI” is the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado. Many of the instruments on New Horizon were built at SWRI and many of the people listed above as recommendations to follow on Twitter are from SWRI.

Several people have pointed out similarities between what we’re starting to see on Charon and what we saw on Triton, a moon of Neptune (below)…

Triton

Photo: NASA / JPL

…and on Arial, a moon of Uranus (below) in the late 1980s when Voyager 2 flew by.

Ariel

Photo: NASA / JPL

The canyons seen on Charon have also been compared to Tethys, a moon of Saturn (below), which I mentioned yesterday.

Voyager 2 Tethys

Photo: NASA / JPL

At least with Triton I have heard speculation that it might be a Kuiper Belt object, one that formed far out beyond where Pluto is now and was captured later by Neptune. Again, no way to do a lot of testing of those theories without going back, and that probably won’t happen for decades.

But wouldn’t it be cool if we could go back to all of these planets and moons with orbiters and landers and rovers much sooner than “decades?” (Hint: YES, it would be!)

For now, let’s sit back, lose sleep, stay in touch, and watch the final major first encounter with a major object in our Solar System. It’s the end of one phase of the Golden Age of Space Exploration and the beginning of the next.

Hang on, it’s going to be fantastic.

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