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New Horizons: Pluto and Beyond

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Pluto may not be a planet anymore, but that doesn’t mean NASA is putting it on the backburner. On July 14th, the New Horizons probe will pass by Pluto at around 10,000 kilometers (or 6,200 miles). This flyby will give us the closest and most detailed look at the planet we’ve ever had. The spacecraft woke from hibernation late last year to prepare for the approach phases of the mission, after flying about 4.8 billion kilometers (or 3 billion miles). The New Horizons mission is the longest journey yet to reach a primary target. The spacecraft launched aboard an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on January 19, 2006. The successful launch was the third attempt, with external circumstances preventing the first two.

In February this year, New Horizons spotted two small moons orbiting Pluto, named Nix and Hydra. First discovered by images taken through the Hubble Space Telescope, Pluto’s moons are still too far away to know their exact sizes. Styx and Kerberos are still too faint to be seen by New Horizons until it is nearer to Pluto. Scientists are estimating the Nix and Hydra to each be around 40-150 kilometers (or 25-95 miles) in diameter, with Styx and Kerberos being even smaller. Pluto’s biggest moon Charon is almost half the size of Pluto, with a diameter of around 1,200 kilometers (or 745 miles). Our moon, for comparison, has a diameter of about 3,476 kilometers (or 2,159 miles). Pluto's size and the size of its moons were among the top reasons it was moved to Dwarf Planet status, much to the dismay of the public.

New Horizons

On March 10th, New Horizons set a record by firing its engines for 93 seconds from 4.83 billion kilometers (or 3 billion miles) from the Earth. This engine burn was the most distant for any spacecraft so far, reported Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator and planetary scientist. With this correction, the spacecraft is now within 1 AU of Pluto. 1 Astronomical Unit is the average distance from the sun to the Earth - roughly 150 million kilometers (or 93 million miles).

With the detailed views New Horizons is going to provide, NASA has opened a poll to the public for names of the future landmarks that will be discovered on both Pluto and Charon. There are three categories for votes and nominations: History of Exploration, Literature of Exploration, and Mythology of the Underworld. Nominations such as Leif Erikson, Sacagawea, and Challenger top the historic polls, with nominations such as Spock, Tatooine, and Serenity topping the fictional polls, and Hercules, Anubis, and Cthulhu topping the mythological polls. The ballot closes on April 7th but is still taking nominations.

After the New Horizons probe passes Pluto, where will it go? The New Horizons team is currently between two objects, MT69 and MT70. Both were found through the Hubble Space Telescope in the Kuiper Belt this past summer. MT69 is about 60 kilometers (or 37 miles) wide, just shy of MT70’s 76 kilometer (or 47 mile) diameter. New Horizons team member Simon Porter reported that an encounter with MT69 could occur in January 2019 or an encounter with MT70 could occur in early spring of 2019, but it can only approach one of the objects. A decision is expected in August of this year. 

While the probe is not the furthest that has ever been sent, it is providing images and research on some of our solar system's furthest reaches. As of March 22, 2015, New Horizons is about .90 AUs from Pluto and about 32.19 AUs from Earth. 

© Skyler Rehm

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