NASA New Horizons Mission: Pluto is ready for its close-up

When I was in grade school making a mobile of the solar system for science class, Pluto was the ninth planet. Yeah, that was a long time ago.

Things have dramatically changed since then. Is Pluto a planet? The answer may surprise you:

pluto-a-largeHorizontal375NASA’s New Horizons mission will fly by Pluto [on July 14th, 2015. The New Horizons spacecraft will zip past Pluto and its five known moons], after spending nearly a decade in space. Pluto, as you may recall, was stripped of its planetary title back in 2005, for reasons that some scientists think are bogus. Now, they’re hoping to welcome Pluto back to the planetary club.

In 2005, scientists discovered a large, rocky object close to Pluto. The discovery of Eris put scientists in an intergalactic pickle—should they make Eris the tenth planet in our solar system, or sacrifice Pluto and make them both dwarf planets? Because Eris is larger than Pluto, it would be inconsistent for scientists to leave well enough alone.

In 2006, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) finally reached a decision.

Pluto is a dwarf planet, Eris is a dwarf planet, we have eight planets in our solar system, case closed.

Except, the decision turned out to be pretty emotional, and not all that scientific.

* * *

On the other side of the spectrum we find Alan Stern, New Horizon’s principal investigator. According to Stern, Pluto’s always been a planet to him. He told NewsWorks: “I don’t know a single expert, a single planetary scientist, that thinks that the astronomers made a good definition…So we pretty much ignore it.”

Basically, Stern adds, a planet is a large, round object in space: “We recognize big, round objects, rounded by gravity, as planets. It’s about that simple.” Plus, he says, once we see close-up images of Pluto it will be really hard for us not to think of it as a planet.

Wait, so Pluto is still the ninth planet? But Eris is The Dwarf Planet That is Pluto’s Twin? (When Eris was first discovered in 2005, it was submitted as the tenth planet in the solar system. Eris’ discovery was a big reason astronomers demoted Pluto to dwarf planet status in 2006.) And Pluto has five moons? Do I still get to keep the “A” on my 5th grade science project?

On July 14, Pluto is ready for its close-up. The New York Times reports, Almost Time for Pluto’s Close-Up:

As of Monday, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft was still almost six million miles away — about 25 times the distance from Earth to the moon — but it is closing in fast. About 7:50 a.m. Eastern time July 14, New Horizons is expected to pass less than 7,800 miles above Pluto’s surface. Alan Stern, the mission’s principal investigator, likes to say that if New Horizons were to view Manhattan from a similar distance, its telescopic lens would be able to pick out the ponds in Central Park.

Ever since a young astronomer named Clyde W. Tombaugh discovered Pluto 85 years ago, it has been little more than a dot in the night sky. This first ever spacecraft visit will bring Pluto into focus, illuminating mysterious dark regions on its surface and possibly erupting ice volcanoes. Weather patterns could swirl in Pluto’s thin atmosphere of nitrogen and methane, with haze and snowfall.

* * *

While Pluto was once thought to be a singular strange body in an otherwise dull, empty expanse of space, it is now the archetype of what astronomers call the “third zone” of the solar system. Beyond the rocky planets like Earth and the gas giants like Jupiter, there appear to be millions of icy worlds circling the sun in what is known as the Kuiper belt, named after Gerard Kuiper, an astronomer who had suggested that some comets originated from the outskirts of the solar system.

New Horizons is carrying sentimental mementos from Earth, including some ashes of Mr. Tombaugh, who died in 1997; a CD-ROM with 434,000 names of people who responded to a “Send Your Name to Pluto” request; and a couple of coins — the state quarters of Maryland (where the spacecraft was built) and Florida (where it was launched).

The latest surveys of Pluto’s neighborhood show no signs of moons other than the five already known, nor of debris that could pose a danger to New Horizons. There could still be smaller objects — hitting something as small as a pebble could be catastrophic at New Horizons’ speed of 31,000 miles per hour — but the path appears to be clear. Computer simulations indicate that the spacecraft would travel through unscathed 4,999 out of 5,000 tries.

“I’m pretty confident,” Dr. Stern said.

Images from New Horizon have already revealed the unexpected, like a dark region at the north pole of Charon, Pluto’s largest moon. Usually, polar regions are bright with ice. Pluto also has a series of black spots on its surface, including a string of them, each about the size of Missouri, that the scientists have nicknamed “brass knuckles.”

* * *

It has been a long wait to get there — 14 years after the initial proposal and nine and a half years after New Horizons left Earth in January 2006.

Back then, Pluto was still a full-fledged planet, but the days for that designation were numbered. A year earlier, Michael E. Brown, a professor of planetary astronomy at the California Institute of Technology, had discovered something that was farther out than Pluto and appeared to be bigger. Either this world, which he named Eris, after the Greek goddess of chaos and strife, would also be a planet or Pluto would no longer be a planet.

Seven months later, the International Astronomical Union officially decided that to be a planet, an object had to push around everything else around its orbit. Pluto is too small to be a gravitational bully, and the organization invented a new label for Pluto, Eris and their ilk: dwarf planet.

* * *

[T]here was nothing else like Pluto and [its moon] Charon in the solar system — until 1992, when David Jewitt, then at the University of Hawaii, and Jane Luu, then at the University of California, Berkeley, discovered a small icy body beyond the orbit of Neptune. Soon, more icy objects were spotted. Today, more than a thousand Kuiper belt objects have been discovered, and astronomers estimate there might be millions more orbiting out there. The region beyond Neptune is now by far the most populous part of our solar system.

* * *

During the flyby, the seven instruments on New Horizons will take detailed measurements of Pluto and its moons. By photographing a surface from multiple vantage points, scientists will be able to construct a topographic map. An instrument called a spectrometer will be able to identify some of the substances on the surface of Pluto and Charon.

After the closest approach, New Horizons will pass through the shadows of Pluto and Charon.

The arrival of New Horizons was timed so Charon will be over the night side of Pluto — that is, someone standing on Pluto would see Charon in the dark sky — and that moonlight, reflected off Charon to Pluto, is enough to illuminate the surface for photographs. The scientists will be able to compare the night view on Pluto with how the same region appeared in sunlight three days earlier. (A Plutonian day — the time to rotate on its axis — is 6.4 days.)

That, for instance, could show whether it snows on Pluto and whether nitrogen and methane in the atmosphere condense in the frigid nighttime. “It’s our only way to map that part of Pluto,” Dr. Stern said.

After New Horizons emerges from the shadows, the geometry of backlighting will enable the study of haze or clouds, similar to how in the late afternoon, “you see these dust motes in the air which you couldn’t see earlier in the day,” Dr. Stern said.

New Horizons will also measure the reflectivity of a radar signal off its surface. New Horizon’s transmitter is not powerful enough, but a 70-meter radio dish at NASA’s Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex in California will be aimed at Pluto, and its pings of radio waves will bounce off Pluto to a receiver on New Horizons. “The spacecraft will be busy all day,” Dr. Stern said.

But for people back on Earth, that Tuesday will be one of largely uninterrupted waiting. Partly for simplicity, partly for fiscal economy, the instruments and antenna are bolted to the main spacecraft body and not on a rotating platform. That means New Horizons cannot take pictures and talk to Earth at the same time. It will take only a brief pause to send back a message to tell the scientists and engineers that it has survived the encounter and provide some engineering details about the day’s events.

Four and a half hours later, the time it takes light to travel the three billion miles from Pluto, that status message will arrive at mission control. “That doesn’t mean we won’t be on the edge of our seats on the 14th,” Dr. Stern said. “It’s just human. We’re going to be waiting for that signal at 9 p.m., and that’ll be our moment of suspense.”

The first photographs will be sent back the next day. Because of the sheer volume of data, the slow trickle of communications and the need to share NASA’s Deep Space Network with other spacecraft, it will take a year and a half for all of the information to be radioed back to Earth.

“This is a mission of delayed gratification,” said Hal Weaver, the project scientist.

The long work of analyzing data, digesting the unexpected and putting together a new understanding of Pluto will take years.

After Pluto, New Horizons is to be aimed toward one of two smaller Kuiper belt objects, 20 or 30 miles wide, both belonging to what astronomers call the cold classical Kuiper belt. Unlike that of Pluto, the orbits of these objects are circular and in the plane of the planets, seemingly undisturbed since the formation of the solar system four and a half billion years ago. “They are probably the only things that were there at the beginning,” said Dr. Levison of the Southwest Research Institute.

But wait, there’ more . . .

Before Dr. Brown discovered Eris, he found Sedna, a smaller object with a much weirder 11,400-year elliptical orbit. At its closest point to the sun, it is still beyond the Kuiper belt. At its farthest point, it is 31 times as far from the sun as Neptune.

Sedna remained a singular oddity until a few years ago when other astronomers found a second object with a Sedna-like orbit. In addition, they suggested that Sedna, the new object and other bodies at the outer edges of the Kuiper belt seemed to be nudged by the gravity of something big, several times the mass of Earth, farther out.

That idea is still controversial, although Dr. Brown, for one, is looking. “I think there is a super-duper earth out there,” he said. “We are pretty convinced that there is something large enough out there that we can quit worrying about wannabe things like Pluto and start worrying about the real ninth planet.”

The age of planetary discovery may not yet be over.

“Space, the final frontier . ..”

2 responses to “NASA New Horizons Mission: Pluto is ready for its close-up

  1. captain*arizona

    Pluto. Isn’t that where donald trump was hatched?

  2. VERY interesting material…