Pluto fly-by tonight

The New Horizons spacecraft is due to fly past Pluto tonight at 11:49:57 p.m. New Zealand Time time (7:49 AM Monday, US Eastern Time, Tuesday 14 2015).

Because of very slow transmission rates it is likely to be another day before data and images are received back here on Earth so if all goes well hope for something by Thursday morning.

The last photo of Pluto before preparing for the flyby was taken two days ago, and is the first time contours have been seen.

Pluto photographed in black and white on July 11, 2015

For the first time on Pluto, this view reveals linear features that may be cliffs, as well as a circular feature that could be an impact crater. Just starting to rotate into view on the left side of the image is the bright heart-shaped feature that will be seen in more detail during New Horizons’ closest approach.

Annotated details:

And there is also a photo of one of Pluto’s four known moons.

Charon’s Chasms and Craters

Pluto's moon Charon
Chasms, craters, and a dark north polar region are revealed in this image of Pluto’s largest moon Charon taken by New Horizons on July 11, 2015.
Pluto's moon Charon
Chasms, craters, and a dark north polar region are revealed in this image of Pluto’s largest moon Charon taken by New Horizons on July 11, 2015. The annotated version includes a diagram showing Charon’s north pole, equator, and central meridian, with the features highlighted.

New Horizons’ newest images reveal Pluto’s largest moon Charon to be a world of chasms and craters. The most pronounced chasm, which lies in the southern hemisphere, is longer and miles deeper than Earth’s Grand Canyon, according to William McKinnon, deputy lead scientist with New Horizon’s Geology and Geophysics investigation team.

“This is the first clear evidence of faulting and surface disruption on Charon,” says McKinnon, who is based at the Washington University in St. Louis. “New Horizons has transformed our view of this distant moon from a nearly featureless ball of ice to a world displaying all kinds of geologic activity.”

The most prominent crater, which lies near the equator of Charon in an image taken July 11 and radioed to Earth today, is about 60 miles (96.5 kilometers) across. The brightness of the rays of material blasted out of the crater suggest it formed relatively recently in geologic terms, during a collision with a small Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) some time in the last billion years.

Follow the path of the spacecraft in coming days in real time with a visualization of the actual trajectory data, using NASA’s online Eyes on Pluto.

Stay in touch with the New Horizons mission with #PlutoFlyby and on Facebook at:

Pluto fly-by next week

After a nine year journey NASA’s New Horizons space probe is closing in on Pluto and will fly within about 12,000 kilometres on July 14 (next Tuesday/Wednesday). It will be a brief look as it is travelling at about 50,000 km per hour.

If it all goes according to plan a large amount of data will be gathered – it will take 16 months to transmit it all back to Earth.

The best photos ever of Pluto are already beaming back.


Composite photo of Pluto taken July 7

BBC reports New Horizons snaps Pluto from eight million km.

At closest approach, New Horizons will be about 12,500km above the surface.

Its high-resolution camera Lorri should then be able to discern features at a resolution better than 100m per pixel.

Lorri is responsible for the view seen on this page, too, but the colour information has been overlaid from the probe’s other camera, Ralph.

“They’re still a little blurry but they’re by far the best pictures we’ve ever seen of Pluto, and they’re only going to get better,” said John Spencer from the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Colorado, US, one of the New Horizons co-investigators.

“Right now they’re just showing us that Pluto is really weird. It’s got some extremely dark areas, some extremely bright areas, and we don’t know what any of them are yet,” Dr Spencer told Newshour on the BBC World Service.

He and his colleagues believe the brightest patch might be covered in frozen carbon monoxide, while the dark swathe may be a deposit of hydrocarbons, burnt out of Pluto’s atmosphere by UV light and cosmic rays.

But this is all guesswork at the moment.

“We will get pictures 500 times better than this next Tuesday, when we have our closest approach,” Dr Spencer said.

Vox: NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto, explained

New Horizons’ brief moment with Pluto will mark a historic moment in space exploration. For the first time in a generation — since the Voyager 2 probe swooped by Neptune in 1989 — we’re going to see an entirely new world for the first time. But it’ll also be the last time. As Dennis Overbye puts in an excellent New York Times column, “None of us alive today will see a new planet up close for the first time again.”

1) We’re about to see Pluto for the first time

Lots of people assume we’ve seen Pluto before, but they’re likely thinking of artists’ renderings or illustrations.

2) We’ll also learn about Pluto’s moons (two weren’t discovered until 2012)

Pluto is very unusual in that it’s a fraction of the size of Earth but has five moons. The dwarf planet slightly orbits the largest moon, Charon (leading some to suggest the pair could best be described as a double planet system), and three of the smaller moons are swept up in the pair’s gravitational field, leading to bizarre, chaotic orbits of their own.

3) This mission has been in the works for decades

NASA engineers actually considered sending the Voyager 1 probe to Pluto after it flew by Saturn in 1980, but chose to send it to Saturn’s moon Titan instead.

For years, they were unsuccessful. During the 1990s, NASA scientists proposed four different Pluto missions but NASA and Congress ultimately failed to provide money for any of them. Finally, in 2003, Congress approved a slimmed-down, relatively small probe to launch to Pluto in 2006: New Horizons.

4) The tiny probe had a 3 billion mile journey to Pluto

Engineers chose a small probe that would be launched atop a very large rocket (an Atlas V), so it could be sent off at the fastest speed possible. It left Earth’s atmosphere traveling faster than any spacecraft ever: 36,373 miles per hour.

It spent most of the subsequent journey in hibernation, though it did wake up when flying by Jupiter in 2007, taking photos of the giant planet and using its gravity to slingshot itself outward to Pluto.

5) The journey to Pluto wasn’t always easy

In 2011 and 2012, astronomers discovered two new moons of Pluto — Kerberos and Styx — leading mission scientists to worry that Pluto might be surrounded by more debris than anticipated, possibly endangering the spacecraft. Subsequent calculations showed the chance of such an impact wasextremely low.

Additionally, this past weekend, New Horizons unexpectedly went into safe mode, switching to a backup computer because of a software glitch. NASA says the problem has been solved and won’t pose any further issues.

6) The mission scientists aren’t too worried about whether Pluto is a planet

Just eight months after the probe was launched, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) officially decided that Pluto was no longer a planet — instead, it’d be categorized as a dwarf planet. The reasoning was partially based on Pluto’s tiny size, and partially on the fact that, in recent years, astronomers found several other similarly sized objects in the same region of space (called the Kuiper belt), including Eris, a dwarf planet that’s actually more massive than Pluto.

7) The spacecraft will tell us lots of other things about Pluto

New Horizons has seven different scientific instruments aboard.

  • The main cameras (Ralph, Alice, and LORRI) will also be able to tell us the chemical composition and temperature of Pluto’s surface, as well as the density and temperature of its atmosphere.
  • PEPSSI (Pluto Energetic Particle Spectrometer Science Investigation) will detect particles escaping from the dwarf planet’s nitrogen-based atmosphere, telling us what other elements are present.
  • SWAP (Solar Wind Around Pluto) will provide data on how these particles interact with the solar wind — the charged plasma released by the sun that emanates throughout the solar system. Together, these two data sets will help us understand how Pluto’s atmosphere fluctuates over time due to its varying distance from the sun.
  • The Student Dust Counter — designed and built by students at University of Colorado Boulder — will provide new information on the density of dust in the outer solar system.
  • After the flyby, REX (Radio Science Experiment) will transmit and receive radio signals through its atmosphere. By analyzing these signals when they reach radio dishes on Earth, we’ll learn about the pressure, temperature, and composition of the atmosphere.

9) All the data will come back at a snail’s pace

Because New Horizons is so far away, it takes about 4.5 hours for any data it sends back to reach Earth. And the signal is so faint that NASA has to use 200-foot-wide radio dishes (one each in Australia, California, and Spain) to pick it up.

This means an extremely low rate of data transmission: about 1 kilobit per second, more than 50 times slower than a 56k modem from the ’90s. So it takes more than 42 minutes for New Horizons to fully transmit an image that’s 1024 pixels wide.

10) New Horizons will continue on to another destination

Plans call for the spacecraft to fly to visit another Kuiper belt object. Scientists are deciding between two potential objects, both of which are about 30 to 50 miles wide. If all goes to plan, the probe will reach one of them in 2019.

NASA: July 9th Daily Briefing for New Horizons/Pluto Mission Pre-Flyby

July 9th daily pre-flyby overview of the New Horizons mission, the spacecraft and its suite of instruments and a summary of Pluto science to date from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland, site of the mission operations center.