April 25, 2015
Using the Ralph color imager, one of its seven sophisticated instruments, New Horizons took his first color images of Pluto and Charon on April 9. The images were released on April 14, exactly three months before the spacecraft’s planned flyby of the Pluto system and its tiny moons. These mouth-watering images are just a teaser for what will happen this summer when the spaceship hovers over Pluto.
Taken from a distance of 71 million miles, roughly the same as the distance between the Sun and Venus, the images, although extremely blurry, still allow us to see differences between the two worlds.
To commemorate the occasion, NASA hosted two briefings, both open to the public, at its headquarters in Washington, DC
The first, titled “New Horizons Media Briefing: Seeing Pluto as Never Before”, featured a panel of five speakers: John grunsfeld, Associate Administrator of the Scientific Missions Directorate, NASA Headquarters, Washington; James Green, director of Planetary Science, NASA Headquarters; Alain stern, New Horizons principal investigator, Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colorado; William McKinnon, New Horizons co-investigator, Washington University, St. Louis; and Cathy Olkin, New Horizons Assistant Project Scientist, Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colorado.
The second panel, titled “New Horizons Media Briefing: Getting to Pluto”, was composed of: Glen Fountain, New Horizons project manager, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, Laurel, Maryland; Hal Weaver, New Horizons project scientist, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, Laurel, Maryland; plus Alan Stern and James Green.
Both briefings were followed by question-and-answer sessions, with questions coming from the media, social media and those in the room.
“The scientific literature is filled with articles on the characteristics of Pluto and its moons from space observations on the ground and in orbit around the Earth, but we have never studied Pluto up close and personally,” pointed out Grunsfeld.
“In an unprecedented survey in July, our knowledge of what the Pluto system really is will expand exponentially and I have no doubt that there will be some exciting discoveries,” he said.
Green denoted Pluto appears bright and red while Charon appears to be weaker.
He also placed the mission in the context of 50 years of planetary exploration.
“We methodically explored our solar system. We started with flyovers. This is our first major step in early recognition of the solar system. From overflights, we learn where we want to go back. We are then in orbit – more complicated missions. These are followed by landing, roaming, and even returning samples from other worlds, he noted.
“We are now at the first step of achieving this initial first step by flying over Pluto and the Pluto system,” Green said.
Stern pointed out that New Horizons is a mission of “firsts” – first mission to a binary planet, first to the Kuiper belt, first in NASA’s New Frontiers program, and first in the Pluto system. It is also the first PI-led mission to an outer planet and the first to transport a student-built instrument, the Venetia Burney Student Dust Counter (SDC ).
“More than 2,500 Americans participated in the construction of the spacecraft, which is small and compact but has enormous capacity,” Stern said.
Although New Horizons has traveled three and a half billion kilometers in over nine years to get to the Pluto system, the spacecraft is perfectly healthy and full of fuel, he reported.
Its seven sophisticated instruments, which Stern described as “the most powerful instrument suite ever made in the first recognition of a new planet…”, only operate at 28 watts.
He described the Pluto system as “a scientific wonderland, a circumbinary system of at least four moons”.
The briefings covered the mission’s schedule of activities through July 14, as well as a description of each instrument and the data downlink process, which will take up to 16 months after the flyby.
Speakers also discussed precautions taken to avoid collisions with smaller dust particles, noting that detailed studies of Pluto’s environment have resulted in the discovery of its four small moons.
They described everything that is currently known about the Pluto system, speculating on what might be found.
Stern described Pluto as a complex body that has seasons, atmosphere, and surface markings that move through time, indicating an exchange of materials between its surface and its atmosphere.
Its surface contains three known volatile substances, nitrogen, carbon dioxide and methane.
Charon, on the other hand, has only water ice and no volatiles on its surface. Its interior is less rocky, and it has no known atmosphere. However, it shows signs of an active surface.
Some scientists believe that Pluto’s surface will contain “spider patterns ”Like those seen on Mars, caused by carbon dioxide escaping from the dry ice in early summer in one of the polar regions.
Pluto’s north pole has just entered its summer season, which means the time may have come for the eruption of ice geysers. Sunlight hitting the region could trigger eruptions of nitrogen ice and gas on the surface, leaving dark linear patterns like those seen at the Martian poles.
Hubble’s images cannot resolve any feature of Pluto’s surface, but scientists using the space telescope have observed changes in color and lighting on the planet’s surface.
“We’re pretty close to polar summer – so there’s a lot of frost to sublimate,” noted NASA’s Bonnie Buratti Jet propulsion laboratory.
McKinnon believes that Pluto’s architecture will provide important clues to its origin and conditions in the ancient Kuiper Belt.
He presented a computer simulation video showing an impact of two Pluto-like objects to illustrate the process of forming Charon and smaller moons.
New Horizons has three levels of science goals, as determined by NASA. The top priority are the requirements; the following are important, and the third are desired.
The required objectives, classified in group 1, include understanding the overall geology and morphology of Pluto and Charon, determining the surface composition of Pluto and Charon, studying its neutral atmosphere, determining of the composition and structure of this atmosphere and the observation of the atmospheric exhaust rates of the two bodies.
Important objectives, designated as Group 2, include timing the variability on the surfaces of Pluto and Charon, stereo imaging of the topography of both worlds to obtain very high resolution images of their surfaces, and measurement of the composition of their atmospheres, which includes the search for minor components such as hydrocarbons. Other important goals include studying the interaction between Pluto’s ionosphere and the solar wind, measuring albedo and surface temperatures, and finding an atmosphere on Charon.
Desired goals, classified in Group 3, include finding additional moons and a ring system, determining if Pluto has a magnetic field, studying the environment of energetic particles, and researching interactions. between a magnetic field and the solar wind.
The New Horizons the team plans to achieve all three sets of goals. As the spacecraft leaves, it will fly over the part that escapes from Pluto’s atmosphere.
A hemisphere of Pluto and Charon will be completely mapped after being imaged with LORRI and Ralph. The other hemisphere will be observed three days before the flyby using LORRI. Because this latter hemisphere is in total darkness, the spacecraft will look back with LORRI when Charon is behind Pluto, using Charon’s moonlight to illuminate the shaded regions of Pluto.
When all the data is available, the team expects to have near-global maps of Pluto and Charon and good images of small moons.
Tagged: Alan Stern Charon New Horizons Pluto
Laurel Kornfeld is an amateur astronomer and freelance writer from Highland Park, NJ, who enjoys writing about astronomy and planetary science. She studied journalism at Douglass College at Rutgers University and obtained a graduate certificate in science from the Astronomy Online program at Swinburne University. His writings have been published online in The Atlantic, the guest blog section of Astronomy magazine, the UK Space Conference, the IAU 2009 General Assembly journal, The Space Reporter and various club newsletters. of astronomy. She is a member of Amateur Astronomers, Inc., based in Cranford, NJ. Particularly interested in the Outer Solar System, Laurel gave a brief presentation at the 2008 Big Planet Debate held at the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University in Laurel, Maryland.