Halfway to Pluto, New Horizons Wakes Up in 'Exotic Territory'

Jun 18, 2010 by Dauna Coulter
Halfway to Pluto, New Horizons Wakes Up in 'Exotic Territory'
An artist's concept of New Horizons.

Zipping through space at nearly a million miles per day, NASA's New Horizons probe is halfway to Pluto and just woke up for the first time in months to look around.

"Our spacecraft is way out in exotic territory, in the middle of nowhere," says Hal Weaver, project scientist at Johns Hopkins University. "And we have a lot to do."

It's the perfect opportunity to test New Horizon's instruments before the probe reaches Pluto in 2015. "We don't want to miss a single breathtaking moment during the Pluto encounter," he says. "So we're checking everything out now to make sure we're ship-shape and ready to go."

The 9 weeks of testing commenced on May 25th. Mission controllers plan a thorough checkout and recalibration of all seven onboard.

First up is LORRI, the Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager, one of the largest interplanetary telescopes ever flown.

"On July 14, 2015, the date of closest approach, we'll be able to distinguish objects on Pluto as small as a football field," says Weaver. "That's about 300 times better resolution than anything we have now."

LORRI will be working together with "Ralph," a spectrometer designed to probe the surface of Pluto at visible and . Ralph will reveal Pluto's temperature, color, and chemical composition.

"During the current tests, we'll point both LORRI and Ralph at something in the sky to make sure they can be operated together with full sensitivity. Since New Horizons is far from any large bodies right now, we'll aim the cameras at a star field to test them."

Space artist Ron Miller's concept of hypothetical geysers and sundogs on Pluto.

Just after New Horizons passes Pluto in 2015, Pluto will appear as a waning crescent to the spacecraft looking back at it. Weaver speculates that during this phase LORRI might be able to spot hazes high in Pluto's atmosphere or perhaps evidence for cryo-volcanism (i.e., volcanoes that spew icy cold material rather than hot magma) on Pluto's surface.

"During a of Neptune in 1989, Voyager 2 spotted dark streaks on Neptune's moon Triton that appear to have been produced by geysers spewing dirty, frozen nitrogen particles. We could see something similar on Pluto."

As New Horizons passes into Pluto's shadow in 2015, a UV imaging spectrometer named "Alice" will look back toward the sun through Pluto's atmosphere. This should reveal how molecules in Pluto's atmosphere absorb sunlight, and thus what the atmosphere is made of.

"We know the sun's extreme brightness can make these activities difficult for our instruments. So we'll set up the same angles during the current testing to determine what we'll really be able to see and what kinds of information can be pulled out."

Cameras and spectrometers won't be the only busy instruments. REX, New Horizon's Radio Science EXperiment, will detect and observe radio signals coming all the way from NASA's Deep Space Network on Earth.

New Horizons baseline spacecraft design. Image Credit: The Boeing Company

"The way those signals bend as they pass through Pluto's atmosphere will tell us a lot about the atmosphere's pressure and thickness."

The team is counting on test results to be "all systems go." If everything checks out, there's a lot to look forward to.

"We have high hopes for this mission," concludes Weaver. " awaits. The most exciting thing is that we don't know what we're going to see when we get there."

Stay tuned for 2015.

Explore further: Life on Mars? Implications of a newly discovered mineral-rich structure

More information: Click here for information about New Horizon's seven main science instruments: pluto.jhuapl.edu/spacecraft/overview.html

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User comments : 9

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yyz
5 / 5 (5) Jun 18, 2010
"During a flyby of Neptune in 1989, Voyager 2 spotted dark streaks on Neptune's moon Triton that appear to have been produced by geysers spewing dirty, frozen nitrogen particles. We could see something similar on Pluto."

Of course it makes sense to search for potential signs of cryovolcanism on Pluto, but known occurrences in our solar system involve tidal heating of a *moon* by a much more massive planet (Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune).

After the encounter with Pluto, flybys of several Kuiper Belt objects are also planned. Can't wait!
Skeptic_Heretic
5 / 5 (2) Jun 18, 2010
YYZ,
I'm with you, I can't wait for visual confirmation of the Kuiper belt. I'm hoping we'll see a far more robust set of deep solar objects than we anticipate. Regardless, anything that will lead us back into the area of the "Voyager anomaly" always intrigues me.
Sonhouse
4.5 / 5 (2) Jun 18, 2010
The LORRI scope is about 1/10th the size of the Hubble, which has a res or about 0.05 arc second, so this one will have a res of about 0.5 arc second. Not sure how close it will come to Pluto but say it gets within 50,000 Km, that would give the imaging about a 300 meter resolution on Pluto. That is just a guess however, on how close it will get. Wouldn't it be great if it could orbit! Not in the cards of course.
Sonhouse
5 / 5 (2) Jun 18, 2010
Finally found the closest approach to Pluto, about 10,000 km, so it will be able to resolve features under 100 meters across. It will also come in less than 30,000 km from Charon which will be close enough to resolve features around 150 meters across. To put that in perspective, the Hubble can only resolve about 1200 Km on Pluto, only a few pixels. If we wanted to see with the clarity of the New Horizons and had to be near Earth, the mirror on that telescope would have to be about 400 kilometers across!
MarkyMark
5 / 5 (1) Jun 19, 2010
[Gets out popcorn]

This is going to be a show not to miss.
Kedas
5 / 5 (1) Jun 19, 2010
Uhmm what are they planning to do in the next 4 years??
I assume they will do the same check again about 4 years from now.
yyz
5 / 5 (1) Jun 19, 2010
During its flyby of Jupiter in 2007, New Horizons grabbed some images of Io with the Tvashtar Paterae volcanic region in eruption. A gif movie of the eruption is available: http://en.wikiped...ideo.gif . Good practice for the Pluto encounter.

Kedas, Over the next four years, New Horizons will periodically be checked out to ensure all systems are functional for the flyby. Imaging will also be obtained to help determine if any course corrections need to be made.

Skeptic_Heretic, Should be interesting to see what KBOs are chosen for flyby opportunities. At this time, the search is on (from Earth) for undiscovered KBOs that might be proper candidates for the extended mission. The New Horizons website mentions that this search is complicated because the search area is heavily contaminated by background stars in the Milky Way.
panorama
not rated yet Jun 19, 2010
This is so exciting!!! Does anyone know if there will be any other fly-by's before reaching Pluto?
Doug_Huffman
5 / 5 (2) Jun 19, 2010
As I recall, Pluto's orbit is tilted out of the plane of the Solar System, but I could be wrong.

Nope, 17 degrees tilted.