Close-up of Pluto
We’re a curious species; we like to research alien areas that lie far beyond the cozy world we know. And so we sail to the mysterious and dangerous shadow of remote space to find what nobody has ever before seen, kissed by the irresistible urge to understand what exists beyond the familiar. New Horizons is an interplanetary space probe that was launched as part of NASA’s New Frontiers program, with the assignment of performing a flyby analysis of the remote dwarf planet Pluto and its own quintet of icy moons–notably its large moon Charon. The remote, frozen twilight area of our Solar System, where the Pluto system is located, was unexplored until New Horizons wandered its way into this faraway fringe of our Sun’s area of influence known as the Kuiper Belt.
A team headed by Dr. Alan S. Stern was responsible for seeing that the spacecraft was launched in 2006 with the principal mission of performing a flyby study of the Pluto system in 2015, and a secondary assignment of visiting and analyzing one or more other denizens of this remote Kuiper Belt within our Solar System’s outer limits. The Kuiper Belt is your freezing house of a multitude of sparkling, icy comet nuclei and other suspended objects, both big and small. It’s located beyond the orbit of Neptune, the outermost major world of our Sun’s family. New Horizons’ secondary assignment, to perform a flyby of a Kuiper Belt Object (KBO), is scheduled to happen in the decade after the Pluto flyby. New Horizons is the fifth artificial thing to reach the escape velocity required to free itself from the gravitational grasp of our Solar System.
On January 19, 2006, New Horizons was launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station via an Atlas V rocket into an Earth-and-solar escape trajectory using a breathtaking rate of about 36,400 mph. The Jupiter flyby gave New Horizons a gravity kick that raised its rate. The flyby also provided an overall evaluation of New Horizons’ scientific capacities, sending back to Earth important information about the planet’s magnetosphere, atmosphere, and lots of moons.
This was done so as to preserve on-board systems. On December 6, 2014, New Horizons was intentionally shaken from its long slumber and has been brought back online because of its scheduled encounter with Pluto, and instrument checkout started. On January 15, 2015, the New Horizons spacecraft started to approach its quarry.
On July 14, 2015, New Horizons jumped 7,800 miles over the fascinating, beautiful, and alien surface of Pluto which was unlike any other planetary surface before detected in our Solar System. This made New Horizons the first spacecraft to explore the very remote dwarf world. On October 25, 2016, the final of the recorded data in the early Pluto flyby was obtained from New Horizons. Having completed its flyby of Pluto, New Horizons was maneuvered for a flyby of another KBO (486958) 2014 MU 69. This experience is scheduled to happen on January 1, 2019, when it’ll be 43.4 astronomical units (AU) from our Sun.
The Objective of this New Horizons mission is to develop a new scientific understanding of the formation of the Pluto System, the Kuiper Belt, and the Growth of the early Solar System. The spacecraft gathered information about the surfaces, atmospheres, interiors, and surroundings of Pluto and its moons–notably Charon. It’s also planned to study additional suspended objects inhabiting the mysterious and distant Kuiper Belt.
This secondary stage of this New Horizons mission started in 2011 with a committed search for a suitable KBO as the goal for its historic flyby of these very distant objects dancing around in our Solar System’s distant deep freeze. So as to make this very tough option, ground telescopes were used by scientists. Specifically, large floor telescopes with wide-field cameras, especially the duo of twin 6.5-meter Magellan Telescopes in Chile, the 8.2-meter Subaru Observatory in Hawaii, along with the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope were utilized by astronomers so as to look for potential targets. Through a citizen-science job, the general public also assisted with this search by combing through telescopic pictures for possibly appropriate mission candidates in an endeavor called the Ice Hunters Project.
On October 15, 2014, astronomers revealed that HST’s research had come up with three possible targets. The trio of possible targets were about 43 to 44 AU from our Sun, which set the future experiences in the 2018 to 2019 period.
On August 28, 2015, 2014 MU69 was chosen as the flyby target for the secondary New Horizons mission of exploration throughout the Kuiper Belt. The essential adjustment for this upcoming experience was performed with four motor firings between October 22 and November 4, 2015. Additionally, New Horizons will continue to observe the gas, dust, and plasma composition of this Kuiper Belt prior to the assignment extension will come to a conclusion in 2021.
The science goals of the flyby over 2014 MU69 include ascertaining its morphology and geology, and mapping its surface composition, especially searching for carbon monoxide, methane, ammonia, and water ice. This will help planetary scientists determine 2014 MU69 shaped and has since evolved. New Horizons is also intended to gauge the very small KBO’s surface temperature.
The Kuiper Belt was appointed after the Dutch-American astronomer Gerard Kuiper (1905-1975), who’s usually given credit for being the first to predict its presence. The Kuiper Belt is a remote, twilight area of our Solar System, located beyond the frigid realm of this quartet of imperial, giant, gaseous significant planets of our Sun’s household –Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. However, like the Main Asteroid Belt, the Kuiper Belt is populated by little bodies which are the lingering relics of the early era of planet formation in our Solar System. The asteroids are all that’s left of an abundant ancient inhabitants of rocky planetesimals (the building blocks of planets) that divides into one another and united together to create ever larger and larger bodies. The asteroids are very similar to the rocky and metallic planetesimals that finally generated the four inner sound planets of our Solar System: Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars. By comparison, the Kuiper Belt is the distant home of myriad icy comet nuclei which are similar to the dusty and icy planetesimals that collided with one another and merged to produce the gigantic quartet of outer planets.
But most KBOs are composed of volatiles (“ices”), such as ammonia, methane, and water. The Kuiper Belt is also the frigid domain name of a trio of formally recognized dwarf planets: Pluto, Haumea, and Makemake. A few of our Solar System’s moons, such as Phoebe of Saturn and Triton of Neptune, are thought to have been born in this remote deep freeze far from the melting heat and brilliant light flowing from our roiling, fiery Star.
Since the Kuiper Belt was really found back in 1992, the amount of famous KBOs has skyrocketed, and over 100,000 KBOs are predicted to become greater than 62 miles in diameter Initially, astronomers believed that the Kuiper Belt was the key domain of short-period comets, which are people who sport orbits which swing them around our Star less often than every 200 yearsago But more recent studies which were conducted as the mid-1990s, have shown that the Kuiper Belt is in fact dynamically stable, and that the real home of the short-period comets is truly the scattered disc. The scattered disc is a dynamically active region of our Solar System, which was likely generated by the outward migration of Neptune about 4.5 billion years back, within our 4.56 billion year old Solar System’s infancy. Scattered disk objects, such as Eris, have extremely bizarre (out-of-round) orbits which take them up to 100 AU from our fiery Star.
The icy inhabitants of this Kuiper Belt, together with the suspended denizens of this scattered disk, are jointly designated trans-Neptunian objects. A third region of our Solar System, that’s also thought to be the home of an abundant population of comet nuclei, is the very remote Oort Cloud. It’s also the home of long-period comets, which are those sporting orbits which take them over 200 years to circle our Star. The somewhat hypothetical Oort Cloud is a huge shell of dance, icy comet nuclei that encircles our entire Solar System–and stretches halfway to the nearest star beyond our Sun.
Poor Pluto is the largest known denizen of this Kuiper Belt, in addition to the second-largest trans-Neptunian Item , after Eris, that’s situated in the scattered disk. Even though it was initially classified as a significant world after its discovery in 1930 by the American astronomer Clyde Tombaugh, Pluto’s status as just another member of the heavily populated Kuiper Belt led to its unceremonious flooding from the pantheon of major planets. But, final efforts to classify this tiny world with a large heart have failed to reach a definite conclusion regarding its planetary status. Pluto has been re-classified as a dwarf world in 2006, and it’s composionally like many, many additional KBOs. Really, its orbital period is characteristic of a specific class of KBOs known as plutinos. Plutinos share the exact same 2:3 resonance with Neptune.
Three years following New Horizons gave humankind our first close up and personal perspectives of Pluto and Charon, planetary scientists are still discovering the myriad wonders of these two frozen, fascinating modest worlds in our Solar System’s dimly-lit deep freeze.
The newest natural-color graphics are the result of improved calibrations of information accumulated by New Horizons’ Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC). “That processing generates pictures that would approximate the colors that the human eye could perceive–bringing them nearer to’true color’ compared to images published close to the encounter,” explained Dr. Alex Parker at a July 20, 2018 Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (JHUAPL) Press Release.
But, MVIC’s color filters do not closely match the wavelengths which are picked up by our eyes. As a result of this mismatch, mission scientists implemented special processing to change the raw MVIC information into giving a good estimate of the colors that our eyes would see if they could. The colours revealed was more subdued than those generated in the raw MVIC colour data. This is due to the narrower array of wavelength that is felt by human vision.
Both pictures of Pluto and Charon were obtained when New Horizons jumped towards its closest approach to Pluto and its own quintet of mysterious moon-worlds on July 14, 2015. The picture of Charon was taken from a range of 46,091 kilometers and Pluto from 22,025 miles. Each is a single colour MVIC scan, without any additional data from other New Horizons tools or imagers added.
This intimate encounter, with the most distant thing as visited by a spacecraft, is scheduled for January 1, 2019. The historic meeting between New Horizons and the mysterious small KBO will take place a billion miles further from our Sun than Pluto. Today, approximately 3.8 billion kilometers from Earth–over 40 times further from our Star compared to Earth–the spacecraft is operating normally and will begin obtaining long-distance observations and measurements of Ultima in late August 2018.
“Even as we celebrate the third anniversary of the historical exploration of the Pluto system–the most distant worlds explored–we are excited about the much more distant and record-shattering exploration of Ultima Thule, only five months from today,” Dr. Stern commented to the press on July 20, 2018.