13Jul2015

G’Day Pluto! We’ve Arrived – Latest Updates

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New Horizon’s core science mission is to map the surfaces of Pluto and Charon, to study Pluto’s atmosphere and to take temperature readings.

 It’s travelled more than nine years to get there and it will only stay a few hours, but a small space probe already is revolutionizing the way we look at Pluto, and we can hardly wait for more!

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft will be within 9,978 kilometres of Pluto’s surface at 7:49 a.m. ET on July 14 — Tuesday — becoming the first spacecraft to do a flyby of the icy world. It also will pass about 17,000 miles from Pluto’s largest moon, Charon.

“The data is going to start raining down from the sky,” Alan Stern, the mission’s principal investigator told CNN Saturday in a phone interview. The probe already is beaming back the best photos ever of Pluto and Charon. “Pluto and Charon are both mindblowing,” Stern said. “I think that the biggest surprise is the complexity we’re seeing in both objects.”

New Horizons will be traveling about 31,000 miles per hour (14 kilometres per second) during the main encounter, which will last about eight to 10 hours, NASA says. The mission will complete what NASA calls the reconnaissance of the classical solar system, and it makes the U.S. the first nation to send a space probe to every planet from Mercury to Pluto. The probe has travelled more than 3 billion miles to reach Pluto.

We will soon understand the make-up of this enigmatic little world

The probe gave scientists a scare on July 4 when they lost contact with it after a computer glitch at mission control at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland. “We did hit a speed bump,” Stern said at a briefing on July 6. Some science data was lost, including images, he said.

Stern said on Saturday the probe is working fine. “The spacecraft is performing flawlessly, so is the instrument suite and we are on schedule for arrival.”

What will you see during the flyby? NASA says on its website there will be a few images before New Horizons flies through the Pluto system and a few more after the encounter. The images from the close encounter will be released on July 15 at 3 p.m. ET.

THIS IS WHERE WE’LL PUT THE LATEST MISSION HIGHLIGHTS AND NASA UPDATES

Charon

The best image yet of Charon. The presence of the dark pole is a major surprise

Engineers say the New Horizons spacecraft is in “great shape” for its historic flyby of Pluto this week. In the early hours of Monday (GMT), the American space agency probe moved to within a million miles of the dwarf planet and was closing in rapidly.

The mission has one opportunity to gather detailed pictures and other science data during the encounter. The spacecraft is moving so quickly it cannot stop and will simply barrel past the little world on Tuesday. Every observation New Horizons seeks to make at Pluto must be executed in just a few hours.

With nearly five billion km between Earth and the dwarf, any radio message carries hours of delay. Media caption Scientists are waiting to see what Nasa’s New Horizons probe will reveal about the dwarf planet Pluto and what is beyond it

It means the probe cannot be controlled in real time and it will be working to an automated command sequence. New Horizons now has that sequence written into its computer, and engineers confirmed on Sunday that they plan to send up no further commands to the spacecraft.

This is one of those key moments in the history of space exploration. A successful rendezvous will complete the initial reconnaissance of all the “classical” nine planets. Pluto is the last of the nine “classical” planets to be visited by a spacecraft

Glen Fountain, the New Horizons project manager, has told his team to stay focused but to try also to soak up some of the atmosphere. “I’ve told the team they really need to be living the time,” he said in a briefing to reporters. “I mean, how often do you get a chance like this, to realise that you are participating in something much larger than yourself?”

New Horizons continues to downlink data on approach to Pluto. Selected pictures are being processed for public release. Each new release brings surface features into sharper focus. The latest posting is of the dwarf planet’s largest moon, Charon.

Seen clearly in this new view are huge chasms and craters, as well as the moon’s so-far-unexplained dark pole. Scientists say this has been one of the major surprises of the encounter so far, as has the very contrasting appearance of Charon and Pluto.

A last batch of pre-flyby data will come down on Monday. This will include a 600-pixel-wide, full-frame image of Pluto itself. The probe will then go radio silent. Its final contact is set for 03:17 GMT on Tuesday (04:17 BST; 23:17 EDT Monday).

During the hours of closest approach, when it gets to within 12,500km of the surface, New Horizons is simply too busy to talk to Earth. The automated observation sequence will see it make hundreds of movements as it slews every which way to point its cameras, not just at Pluto and Charon, but also at the lesser moons in the system: Styx, Nix, Kerberos and Hydra.

The mission team will be waiting anxiously at its operations centre here at Johns Hopkins University for a signal confirming that the flyby was completed without incident. This message should start to come through at 00:53 GMT Wednesday (01:53 BST; 20:53 EDT Tuesday).

All it will contain at that time will be engineering data on the status of the probe. But New Horizons’ mission manager, Alice Bowman, said that just this ordinary telemetry would indicate whether all the observations were conducted as they should have been.

“If everything looks normal, there’s no reason to think we didn’t get the goods,” she told BBC News.Some choice images acquired at the moment of closest approach will be released on Wednesday.

Why Go To Pluto?

The Kuiper belt, is a region of the Solar System beyond the planets, extending from the orbit of Neptune to approximately 50 AU from the Sun.

New Horizon’s core science mission is to map the surfaces of Pluto and Charon, to study Pluto’s atmosphere and to take temperature readings. The spacecraft was launched on January 19, 2006, before the big debate started over Pluto’s status as a planet. In August of that same year, the International Astronomical Union reclassified Pluto as a dwarf planet.

But Stern disagrees with the IAU’s decision. “We’re just learning that a lot of planets are small planets, and we didn’t know that before,” Stern said in a NASA news release. “Fact is, in planetary science, objects such as Pluto and the other dwarf planets in the Kuiper Belt are considered planets and called planets in everyday discourse in scientific meetings.”

New Horizons has seven instruments on board to help scientists better understand how Pluto and its moons fit in with the rest of the planets in our solar system. The planets closest to our sun — Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars — are rocky. Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune are gas giants. But Pluto is different: Even though it is out beyond the gas giants, it has a solid, icy surface.

Pluto also is small, about the size of the United States, Stern said. Its largest moon, Charon, is about the size of Texas. Pluto also has four smaller moons: Nix, Hydra, Kerberos and Styx. Even before its closest encounter with Pluto, New Horizons was giving scientists new details about the planet: Images taken during the approach showed a series a black spots near Pluto’s equator, each hundreds of miles across.

Beyond Pluto

New Horizons looks like a gold foil-covered grand piano. It’s is 27 inches (0.7 meters) tall, 83 inches (2.1 meters) long and 108 inches (2.7 meters) wide. It weighed 1,054 pounds (478 kilograms) at launch. The probe won’t orbit Pluto and it won’t land. Instead, it will keep flying, heading deeper into the Kuiper Belt, a region that scientists think is filled with hundreds of small, icy objects.

The universe has a lot more variety than we thought about, and that’s wonderful,” Stern said. “The most exciting discoveries will likely be the ones we don’t anticipate.”

Online Media Coverage

NASA will provide comprehensive television, Internet and social media coverage this week of the agency’s New Horizons spacecraft historic July 14 flyby of Pluto. The time for the flyby preview news briefing on NASA Television Monday, July 13 has moved up 30 minutes, and now will start at 10:30 a.m. EDT.

The schedule for events coverage is subject to change based on real-time operations. The list of additional news briefings is available online.  NASA’s Pluto New Horizons media centre at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland, is open from 1-7 p.m. today for media to obtain credentials for this week’s coming activities. APL is the mission control centre for New Horizons. The media centre number is 240-228-8532.

The media centre also will be open from 7 a.m. to midnight on Monday; 5 a.m. to midnight on Tuesday; 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Wednesday, July 15; and 7 a.m. to noon on Thursday, July 16. Hours of operation are subject to change.

** For NASA TV schedules, satellite coordinates, and links to streaming video, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/nasatv 

Follow the New Horizons mission on Twitter and use the hashtag #PlutoFlyby to join the conversation. Live updates will be available on the mission Facebook page.

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