A little goes a long way—especially when you’re traveling 51,000 mph! On Feb. 1, 2017 NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft performed a 44-second thruster burn that adjusted its course by just under 1 mph toward its next target, the Kuiper Belt object 2014 MU69.
“One mile per hour may not sound like much,” said mission Principal Investigator Alan Stern, “but over the next 23 months, as we approach MU69, that maneuver will add up to an aim point refinement of almost six thousand miles (10,000 kilometers).”
New Horizons made its closest pass by Pluto on July 14, 2015. It will perform a similar flyby of the much smaller MU69 on Jan. 1, 2019.
Read the full story from NASA here: New Horizons Refines Course for Next Flyby
We could be calling it Cloudgate—”leaked” information from internal emails identifying structures in Pluto’s already hazy atmosphere that could very well be clouds, based on a March 4 article in New Scientist.
The image above shows sections of a New Horizons image attached to an email sent by SwRI scientist John Spencer, in which he noted particularly bright areas in Pluto’s atmosphere. “In the first image an extremely bright low altitude limb haze above south-east Sputnik on the left, and a discrete fuzzy cloud seen against the sunlit surface above Krun Macula (I think) on the right,” he wrote.
If you’ve been waiting and dreaming for more high-resolution images of Pluto, the stars are now right: there’s a new mosaic from New Horizons out that snakes across the dwarf planet’s rugged (and notably non-Euclidean) surface, displaying many types of fascinating terrain: craters, pits, jumbled ice mounds, and the edges of a large dark region dubbed “Cthulhu” after the tentacled elder god of H.P. Lovecraft fame. Ia! Ia!
After more than nine years of traveling through space the New Horizons spacecraft is now in the home stretch of its journey, with less than 120 days and 143 million kilometers to go before it makes its historic flyby of the Pluto system on July 14. It will be the first time we get a good close-up look at the distant world which had for over seven decades held reign over the frozen edges of our Solar System as the outermost planet, much like its namesake governed the cold darkness of the mythological Greek underworld.
Discovered on February 18, 1930, the ninth planet Pluto lost its “full” planetary status in August 2006 as the result of a highly-contested decision by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) to create a new class of “dwarf planets,” of which Pluto, Ceres, and the then-recently-discovered Eris became charter members. Seven months after New Horizons launched, the edict did not sit well with both many members of the planetary science community and the public, who were suddenly informed that little Pluto just didn’t measure up and had to be let go… nothing serious, right?
Wrong. It was a serious scientific issue for many people, and especially for Dr. Alan Stern, Associate Vice President of Space Science and Engineering at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, CO and principal investigator of New Horizons. And understandably so – Dr. Stern’s planetary exploration mission is on its way to Pluto after all, and what it’s expected to encounter is far more complex than what’s implied by the diminutive moniker of “dwarf planet” (which, oddly enough, was coined by Stern himself in 1990.)
I had a change to talk briefly with Dr. Stern on Friday, March 13 – which, incidentally, was the 85th anniversary of Pluto’s first announcement to the world – and got some insight from him on the mission and what we can expect from the upcoming flyby, as well as his views on the whole “planet/dwarf planet” thing. (And yes, it certainly does still matter!)
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