It’s taken the New Horizons spacecraft 3462 days (nine-and-a-half years) to fly the 3 billion miles to Pluto in the outer reaches of our solar system. Today at 1250 BST it will make its closest approach, zipping past Pluto at 30,000 miles per hour, gathering data as it does so.
Everything has been building towards this moment for the thousands of scientists and engineers anxiously waiting for images and information about the tiny ice world. But for now it’s all in the hands of the automatic systems aboard New Horizons. It has turned its antenna away from Earth so that it can focus its attention on Pluto and its moons (Pluto has five known moons, Charon, Styx, Kerberos, Nix, and Hydra). This means that we currently don’t have any way of communicating with or receiving data from New Horizons. It’s on its own until the pre-programmed sequence turns its antenna back towards Earth and begins transmitting back to us. We should begin to receive signals again around 0200 tomorrow (Wednesday) morning.
And what do we hope to see? It’s almost impossible to predict what new imformation this flyby will reveal, but one thing’s for certain: the images will get a whole lot better. The picture above was taken on Sunday from a distance of 2.5 million km. That’s 100 times further than today’s closest approach. The best resolution images we’ll take of Pluto today will allow us to resolve down to 100m per pixel, far better than anything we have seen so far. The above image has a resolution of several km per pixel for example.
So will we see anything at 1250 today? While we won’t start to receive the hi-res images until tomorrow, NASA has held back the final image of Pluto taken by New Horizons before its antenna swung away from us. This is a failsafe image, just in case we don’t hear from New Horizons again*. This image will be released today at the moment of flyby, so stay tuned.
Pluto: The Largest Dwarf Planet
When Pluto was discovered in 1930 it was named the ninth planet in our solar system, but then in 2005 astronomers discovered another object out beyond Pluto, which we called Eris. That name – after the Greek goddess of discord – is apt, as it threw the definition of a planet into chaos. Eris, which at the time was thought to be a little larger than Pluto, must surely be a planet too. But what happens when we discover more such objects out beyond Neptune?
This part of our solar system is known as the Kuiper Belt, and is a little like the asteroid belt only icier. There could well be hundreds of these so-called “Plutoids” or TNOs (Trans Neptunian Objects) out there. To avoid the problems of hundreds of new planets, the International Astronomy Union created a definition of a planet in 2006 that deliberately excludes Pluto and all the other Plutoids.
So Pluto went from being the smallest planet to the second largest dwarf planet (after Eris). But recent measurements made by New Horizons have allowed us to recalculate Pluto’s size and it turns out to be larger than Eris, by a whisker.
Eris is 2326km across (give or take a few km). Measuring Pluto is tricky because of its thin atmosphere, which makes the edges of the dwarf planet fuzzy. However New Horizons is close enough that it can make better measurements than we have had before, which put Pluto’s diameter at 2370km. Pluto is now the king of the dwarf planets!
* Flying through space isn’t risk-free. There are lots of tiny pieces of dust and rock floating out there. Due to its incredible speed even a small particle could wipe out New Horizons if it impacts. As we approach Pluto the number of these particles increases, but it’s still highly unlikely that we’ll experience a catastrophic impact. We’ll know for sure when New Horizons re-establishes contact at around 0200 on Wednesday 15 July
We’re currently living through a very exciting time in space exploration, with a small armada of robot space probes visiting previously unexplored corners of our solar system. Here’s just a few of the amazing discoveries we’ve made in the past few weeks.
This year sees us make close encounters with two of the largest dwarf planets, as New Horizons flies past Pluto for the first time, and Dawn continues to orbit the giant asteroid Ceres. All this as the Philae Lander continues to try to make contact with us from the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko as its parent spacecraft Rosetta follows the comet around the Sun.
Each of these missions is very exciting in its own right, but to have all three happening at once is incredible.
Rosetta and Philae Latest
The Rosetta Orbiter arrived at Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in August last year, and the Philae lander descended onto the comet’s surface in November, carrying out its science mission for 60 hours before its batteries died. Rosetta has continued to produce great science since then; its latest scoop was the discovery of what appear to be sink-holes on the comet’s surface.
All this while Philae tries to make contact with us, and Comet 67P begins the outgassing that will eventually form its tail as the comet makes its closest approach to the Sun on 12 August 2015.
The Dawn spacecraft arrived at Ceres in March 2015, after having spent over a year orbiting the smaller asteroid Vesta. Ceres is the largest of the asteroids, so large in fact that it’s considered a dwarf planet, its gravity having pulled it into a spherical shape.
More and more mysteries are arising as a result of Dawn’s asteroid mission including: what are these bright patches inside craters on Ceres’ surface?
and: what’s a mountain doing on an asteroid?
New Horizons Latest
Stay tuned for even better images of Pluto as New Horizons speeds towards its 14 July flyby at close to 60000kph. For now the best images we have of Pluto and its moon Charon are from New Horizons’ Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager, which shows features on the surface of the distant Dwarf Planet, which we’ll see in better detail in the next couple of weeks.
This is on top of all of the other missions going on up in space right now: Cassini continues to send back breath-taking images and data from the ringed planet Saturn and its moons; no fewer than five spacecraft are currently in orbit around Mars – NASA’s 2001 Mars Odyssey, , Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, and MAVEN, ESA’s Mars Express, and India’s Mangalyaan – while two intrepid rovers – Opportunity and Curiosity – explore Mars’ surface; and our own Moon is orbited by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.
We’ll add to this over the next few years, as the Juno probe reaches Jupiter in summer 2016, and as the Japanese mission Hayabusa 2 enters into orbit around an asteroid in 2018 and returns a sample to Earth on 2020.
In the early morning hours (UK time) of Monday 6 August, NASA’s latest Mars rover, the Mars Science Laboratory, or Curiosity to its friends, will land on the red planet after an eight month journey from Earth.
Curiosity is the largest rover ever sent to Mars – it’s about the size of a Mini – and has a huge array if scientific instruments, which will enable it to complete its science missions: to determine if Mars could ever have supported life; to study Mars’ geology; to study Mars’ climate; to plan for a human mission to Mars.
Curiosity will touch down on Mars after a not-entirely-risk-free landing procedure, which uses a heat shield, parachute, engine, and sky crane, a system by which the lander separates from the sky crane, attached by a tether. The sky crane will use its engines to slow it down to almost a dead-stop, and lower the rover gently onto the surface of Mars.
If you want to watch the landing live, NASA and others are streaming it live. Landing is scheduled for 0631 BST, so you’ll have to tune in a bit before that to watch the whole process. You can also follow Curiosity on Twitter.
And if you want to see the red planet yourself, it’s visible low in the west just after sunset, forming a beautiful triangle with Saturn and Spica, the brightest star in the constellation of Virgo. Mars is the right-hand most of the three bright points of light. You’ll only just catch a glimpse of Mars after the sky darkens enough for it to appear, and before it sets around 2245 BST.