July 15, 2014
NASA’s New Horizons Spacecraft Less Than A Year From Pluto Flyby
[ Watch the Video: ScienceCasts: One Year To Pluto ]
Gerard LeBlond for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online
“Because Pluto has never been visited up-close by a spacecraft from Earth, everything we see will be a first. I know this will be an astonishing experience full of history making moments,” says NASA’s Program Executive for NASA's New Frontiers program, Adriana Ocampo.
Almost exactly 50 years ago, in July 1965 the Mariner 4 spacecraft made a flyby of Mars revealing a desert-like landscape, completely different of what was expected. Alan Stern, the New Horizons’ principal investigator from the Southwest Research Institute, compared the New Horizon mission to the Mariner 4’s flyby. It will revolutionize knowledge with never before seen images and information about the landscape, atmosphere and many other characteristics of the distant planet.
“Many predictions have being made by the science community, including possible rings, geyser eruptions, and even lakes. Whatever we find, I believe Pluto and its satellites will surpass all our expectations and surprise us beyond our imagination,” Ocampo says.
Pluto is so far away that it is almost completely unknown -- even the Hubble Space Telescope has difficulty in viewing it. Some of the best images of the planet have only shown that it is spherical and reddish in color. It has also gone through some color pattern changes over the last couple of years suggesting something is transpiring on the planet, but no one knows what is happening.
Sometime in late April 2015, New Horizons will be able to take images of Pluto, similar to what Hubble has given NASA. In July 2015, it will be at its closest range, approximately 6,200 miles above the planet, close enough to take vivid images of the surface. If the spacecraft was that close to Earth it could reveal individual buildings along with their shapes.
There are five known moons orbiting Pluto: Charon, Styx, Kerberos, Nix and Hydra. Simulations have shown that if meteors impact any of these celestial bodies, it could send a debris cloud into Pluto’s orbit, posing a dangerous scenario. The team involved with the New Horizons mission will keep a watchful eye for any debris that may interfere with the craft and steer it away from any hazards.
“The New Horizons Team continues to do a magnificent job in keeping the spacecraft healthy and ready for this incredible rendezvous. The spacecraft is in good hands,” Ocampo says. “Think about seeing something for the first time and discovering the unknown. That’s what we're about to do.”