New Horizons calls home after Pluto flypast

July 15th, 2015, Published in Articles: EngineerIT

The long-awaited call has come. NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft phoned home just before 21h00 EDT on 14 July 2015 to let the mission team and the world know it had accomplished the historic first ever flyby of Pluto.

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 768,000 kilometres) from the surface. This is the last and most detailed image sent to Earth before the spacecraft’s closest approach to Pluto on July 14. The colour image has been combined with lower-resolution colour information from the Ralph instrument that was acquired earlier on July 13. This view is dominated by the large, bright feature informally named the “heart,” which measures approximately 1,600 kilometres) across. The heart borders darker equatorial terrains, and the mottled terrain to its east (right) are complex. However, even at this resolution, much of the heart’s interior appears remarkably featureless—possibly a sign of ongoing geologic processes. Credits: ASA/APL/SwRI

Pluto nearly fills the frame in this image from the long range reconnaissance imager (LORRI) aboard NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, taken on 13 July 2015 when the spacecraft was 768,000 km from the surface. This is the last and most detailed image sent to Earth before the spacecraft’s closest approach to Pluto on 14 July. The colour image has been combined with lower-resolution colour information from the Ralph instrument that was acquired earlier on 13 July This view is dominated by the large, bright feature informally named the “heart,” which measures approximately 1600 km across. The heart borders darker equatorial terrains, and the mottled terrain to its east (right) is complex. However, even at this resolution, much of the heart’s interior appears remarkably featureless — possibly a sign of ongoing geologic processes. Credits: ASA/APL/SwRI

This is a historic win for science and for exploration. The pre-programmed “phone call” – a 15-minute series of status messages beamed back to mission operations at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland through NASA’s Deep Space Network – ended a very suspenseful 21-hour waiting period. New Horizons had been instructed to spend the day gathering the maximum amount of data, and not communicating with Earth until it is beyond the Pluto system.

“With the successful flyby of Pluto we are celebrating the capstone event in a golden age of planetary exploration,” said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “While this historic event is still unfolding – with the most exciting Pluto science still ahead of us – a new era of solar system exploration is just beginning.  NASA missions will unravel the mysteries of Mars, Jupiter, Europa and worlds around other suns in the coming years.”

Pluto is the first Kuiper Belt object visited by a mission from Earth. New Horizons will continue on its adventure deeper into the Kuiper Belt, where thousands of objects hold frozen clues as to how the solar system was formed. The vast amount of data being collected by the spacecraft will take 16 months to send back to Earth.

New Horizons launched on 19 January, 2006; it swung past Jupiter for a gravity boost and scientific studies in February 2007, and will conduct a five-month-long reconnaissance flyby study of Pluto and its moons during the second half of this year. As part of an extended mission, the spacecraft is expected to head further into the Kuiper Belt to examine some of the ancient, icy mini-worlds in that vast region – at least a billion miles beyond Neptune’s orbit.

Sending a spacecraft on this long journey will help scientists answer basic questions about the surface properties, geology, interior makeup and atmospheres on these bodies.

The National Academy of Sciences has ranked the exploration of the Kuiper Belt – including Pluto – of the highest priority for solar system exploration. Generally, New Horizons seeks to understand where Pluto and its moons “fit in” with the other objects in the solar system, such as the inner rocky planets (Earth, Mars, Venus and Mercury) and the outer gas giants (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune).

Pluto and its largest moon, Charon, belong to a third category known as “ice dwarfs.” They have solid surfaces but, unlike the terrestrial planets, a significant portion of their mass is icy material.

Using Hubble Space telescope images, New Horizons team members have discovered four previously unknown moons of Pluto: Nix, Hydra, Styx and Kerberos.

A close-up look at these worlds from a spacecraft promises to tell an incredible story about the origins and outskirts of our solar system. New Horizons also will explore – for the first time – how ice dwarf planets like Pluto and Kuiper Belt bodies have evolved over time.

The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, designed, built, and operates the New Horizons spacecraft and manages the mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.

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