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Knocking On Hades' Door: T-Minus One Year Before NASA's 'New Horizons' Begins Encounter With Pluto

A Hubble Space Telescope image of Pluto and some of its moons. The New Horizons mission is just a year away from providing us with photographs that will greatly surpass the best images of Pluto that Hubble could ever capture. Image Credit: NASA, ESA, H. Weaver (JHU/APL), A. Stern (SwRI), and the HST Pluto Companion Search Team

A Hubble Space Telescope image of Pluto and some of its moons. The New Horizons mission is just a year away from providing us with photographs that will greatly surpass the best images of Pluto that Hubble could ever capture. Image Credit: NASA, ESA, H. Weaver (JHU/APL), A. Stern (SwRI), and the HST Pluto Companion Search Team

“Can any of you tell
Where Pluto here may dwell,
For we, sirs, are two strangers who were never here before?”

Aristophanes — “The Frogs” (405 B.C.E)

 

In Aristophanes’ comedy “The Frogs,” the ancient Greek comic playwright narrated the adventures of the god Dionysus who journeyed to the Underworld to bring the critically acclaimed tragic poet Euripides back to life, in the hopes of re-instating the desperate state of affairs of Athens’ theatrical plays back to their former glory. In the real world, NASA’s “New Horizons” spacecraft is traversing interplanetary space to unveil new and profound knowledge about the dwarf-planet named after the mythological Greek god of the Underworld.

The location of New Horizons on January 19 2014, eight years to the date after the spacecraft's launch in 2006. Image Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

The location of New Horizons on Jan. 19 2014, eight years to the date after the spacecraft’s launch in 2006. Image Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

Having been launched eight years ago this week, on Jan. 19, 2006, “New Horizons” is well into the late-cruise phase of its mission, hurtling through the Solar System to conduct the first ever fly by in human history of Pluto and its moons. A secondary objective is the reconnaissance, if possible, of the vast area lying beyond as well: the frozen realm of minor planetary bodies at the very edges of our Solar System, better known as the Kuiper Belt.

The “New Horizons” mission is the culmination of decades worth of efforts by NASA and the planetary science community to explore this last unknown territory of the Solar System. Going back to the days of the Voyager Grand Tour of the 1970s and ’80s, scientists and engineers had briefly considered at the time sending Voyager 1 toward Pluto following the Saturn Encounter in 1980. Doing so would mean putting the spacecraft toward a trajectory that would prohibit a close examination of Titan, and Saturn’s largest and more intriguing moon was eventually chosen instead as a more interesting scientific target. As Pluto approached perihelion in 1989, many proposals calling for a dedicated mission to the then ninth planet were sent to NASA, with none of them ever advancing beyond the mission concept phase. One of them, the Pluto Kuiper Express, held much potential of being realised in the 1990s, but the space agency eventually cancelled the mission in 2000, reacting to a series of cost overruns and budget cuts imposed by the White House at the time. An intense reaction and a coordinated lobbying campaign by the planetary science community on Congress led to the Senate re-authorising NASA to continue with a Pluto-dedicated mission. It was out of this campaigning effort that New Horizons arose, as the first of a New Frontiers-class of missions, with a cost of $650 million throughout its operational cycle.

A composite image of Jupiter and Io, taken during New Horizons' fly by of the the giant planet in 2007. The image of Jupiter was taken in infrared and Io's in visible wavelengths. A major eruption is shown in progress on Io’s night side, at the northern volcano Tvashtar. Image Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

A composite image of Jupiter and Io, taken during New Horizons’ fly by of the the giant planet in 2007. The image of Jupiter was taken in infrared, and Io’s in visible wavelengths. A major eruption is shown in progress on Io’s night side, at the northern volcano Tvashtar. Image Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

Following a successful launch onboard an Atlas V rocket in 2006, and a crucial Jupiter fly by in 2007 that yielded some important science, the New Horizons spacecraft, with the exception of a few brief periods of activity, has spent most of its time since in hibernation, quietly passing the orbits of the outer planets en route toward its final destination. Yet, as is the case with another deep-space mission that currently roams the Solar System, the turn of the calendar year brought an end to the New Horizons’ long slumber.

The Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, Md., which is managing New Horizons, activated the spacecraft once again on Jan. 5 to check on the overall health of its systems and prepare it for the Pluto encounter operations that begin in January 2015. “We’ve had busier wakeup periods, but with long-distance Pluto encounter operations starting only a year from now, every activity is important,” says Alice Bowman, mission operations manager for New Horizons at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab. Wake-up activities included checking on the spacecraft’s High-Gain Antenna, uploading of new commands to the onboard computer, and updating of the onboard star charts used for navigation.

Update and calibration of New Horizons’ navigation star charts are crucial parts of the pre-encounter activities, so that the spacecraft is kept on the correct path toward Pluto while adjusting for any trajectory errors that could otherwise lead it off course. Beginning this month, one of the mission’s scientific instruments, the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager, or LORRI, will initiate an imaging campaign by detecting the dwarf planet’s position against the background stars and start taking photographs that will help mission managers on the ground to keep New Horizons on track for its rendezvous with Pluto in July 2015. “LORRI will photograph the planet against known background star fields,” says Alan Stern, associate vice president of the Southwest Research Institute’s Planetary Science Directorate in Boulder, Colo., and principal investigator for the New Horizons mission. “We’ll use the images to refine Pluto’s distance from the spacecraft, and then fire the engines to make any necessary corrections.”

But that will not be all for New Horizons during 2014. The spacecraft will be awakened again during the summer for more imaging activities with LORRI and will also carry out these correction maneuvers, based on the instrument’s data. The scientists will also go through a full series of testing of the onboard backup systems and science instruments to check that everything is nominal before long-distance science operations begin in January of next year. After that, it will be sleep time again for New Horizons, until the spacecraft is awakened again in December to stay active for the remainder of its mission through the Pluto-Charon system and beyond.

An infographic of the New Horizons spacecraft. Image Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

An infographic of the New Horizons spacecraft. Image Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

Besides LORRI, New Horizons is equipped with a full set six other science instruments. These include a visible/infrared imaging spectrometer named “Ralph,” a similar instrument for ultraviolet wavelengths named “Alice,” a solar wind and plasma spectrometer called “SWAP,” an energetic particle spectrometer called “PEPSSI,” a passive radiometer for measuring atmospheric composition and temperature called “REX,” and a Student Dust Counter, or “SDC.”

This scientific payload will help provide humanity with its first-ever close-up images and data of the Solar System’s last unexplored frontier. While the New Horizons spacecraft will fly through the Plutonian system at 36,373 mph (58,536 km/h), it will beam back photographs of vistas never before seen from the surfaces of Pluto and its moons Charon, Nix, Hydra, Kerberos, and Styx. “Everything we see on Pluto will be a revelation,” comments Stern. “There is a real possibility that New Horizons will discover new moons and rings as well.”

Coincidentally, New Horizons’ arrival at Pluto in July 2015 will mark the 50th anniversary of the first-ever planetary imaging fly by in the history of space exploration— Mariner 4′s fly by of Mars in July 1965. “The future has finally arrived,” said Stern in early January following the re-awakening of the New Horizons spacecraft from its hibernation. “After all the time and miles in the rearview mirror, the turning of the calendar page last week to 2014, means we’ll be exploring the Pluto system next year!”

The results from the mission promise to be as groundbreaking and revolutionary as those from Mariner 4—the first mission to open our eyes to the beauty, awe, and wonder of the Solar System, five decades ago. What a better way to celebrate this 50th anniversary than with the first-ever close-up images of Pluto!

 

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16 comments to Knocking On Hades’ Door: T-Minus One Year Before NASA’s ‘New Horizons’ Begins Encounter With Pluto

  • Tracy the Troll

    Leonidas why did we not go into orbit of this mini system for long term study?

    • Leonidas Papadopoulos

      Tracy, the answer has to do with orbital mechanics and availiability of fuel. In order to make a relatively quick trip and cover the distance of more than 4 billion km to Pluto in a period of 9 years, New Horizons was launched directly towards the distant dwarf planet with a speed of more than 50.000 km/h. In fact, the spacecraft set the record as the fastest man-made object ever to leave Earth – faster than the Pioneer and the Voyager probes of the 1970′s. It traversed the Earth-Moon distance in just 9 hours! In order to slow down from such a high speed, enough to go into orbit around Pluto, New Horizons would have to carry thousands of times more fuel than the feeble 77 kg it carried onboard.

      If engineers designed a heavier probe travelling at a much slower speed and capable of carrying more fuel so as to go into orbit, the trip would last so much more, even a decade more or so. But Pluto is past its perihelion, and by the time the spacecraft would get there, a big part of the atmosphere would have probably frozen over, putting a limit to what we could observe on Pluto’s surface.

      And by making a fly by, New Horizons will have the chance to also study objects within the Kuiper Belt beyond Pluto.

  • Nice Greek-Pluto introduction! Looking forward for the Plutonian Encounter

    • Leonidas Papadopoulos

      Thank you Thanassis!

      Since Pluto is named after the ancient Greek God of the Underworld, a relevant Greek introduction was the only appropriate one!

      Indeed, looking forward to the Pluto Encounter! I still remember the feelings of awe and wonder I felt during Voyager 2′s encounter with Neptune in 1989. I will revisit those same feelings next year, while seeing the first ever close-up pictures of Pluto!

  • The 50 years between Mariner 4 and New Horizons is an excellent contrast of early spacecraft technology with today’s sophisticated vehicles. To even imagine the engineering of such craft to travel such distances, endure the harshness of space and to last for years on end is simply mind boggling! We all have very much to look forward to when New Horizon reaches, yes, the 9th planet! Kudos, Leonidas!

  • When I met then-President Bush in August of 2002, I told him we should be the first to every planet and he’d get a lot of Trekkie votes. I’m glad he thought he could use them in 2004. New Horizons will be his greatest mission accomplished! Knock on Plutonium!

  • Karol

    Bravo Leonidas! Once again you have created an excellent in-depth review of an important mission of planetary exploration, affirming that the scope of your knowledge as to spacecraft and their operation is indeed most impressive. Since Pluto is the Greek God of the Underworld, it seems that we have consigned Clyde Tombaugh who discovered Pluto in 1930 to a trip to Hell. When Clyde died, some of his cremains were sealed in a capsule which was fastened to the New Horizons spacecraft. It appears that Clyde really is going to go “where no man has gone before.” :-) Also, at http://newhorizonsmessage.com/ a petition has been created, with the support of principal investigator Alan Stern, for NASA to allow the transmission of an electronic “Voyager record” to New Horizons after it transmits the data it collects back to Earth, an electronically encoded “message in a bottle” which will eventually travel into interstellar space. The names of the first 10,000 persons to sign will be made a part of the transmission. Apparently, individuals from around the world are very interested in this mission. Once again, thank you for the GREAT article Leonidas!

    • Leonidas Papadopoulos

      Hello Karol!

      I have already signed the New Horizons Message Initiative petition, and I’m happy to report that I’m the 8.471st person to do so! I find it heart-warming that at least my name will be transmitted electronically to the spacecraft to be carried onboard, while New Horizons goes interstellar!

      As for Clyde Tombaugh, I wouldn’t worry much about his current whereabouts, for Hades in Greek mythology was just the abode of the dead. If something represented ‘hell’, that was Tartarus, a different mythological place of eternal suffering and punishment.

      The concept of ‘hell’ as we currently understand it, was popularised by the Christian mythology, which in turn borrowed heavily from the mythologies of the many different cultures and civilisations that preceded it.

      You’ve got to hand it to the ancient Greeks for their own fertile imagination and unique mythology

      Best regards!

  • You State: “As Pluto approached perihelion in 1989, many proposals calling for a dedicated mission to the then ninth planet were sent to NASA…”

    Pluto IS still a planet, but it is actually the solar system’s tenth rather than ninth planet. According to the equally scientific geophysical planet definition, one of whose strongest adherents is Dr. Stern, a planet a non-self-luminous spheroidal body in orbit around a star or free floating in space. In other words, dwarf planets are simply a subclass of planets. Ceres is now known to be spherical, meaning it is rounded by its own gravity and therefore a small planet. That makes it our fifth planet, Jupiter our sixth, etc., and Pluto our tenth.

    The Greek underworld was not really “hell” with devil, flames, etc.; rather, it was the abode of the dead, whose souls went to different areas of the underworld based on how they lived their lives.

    • Karol

      Hades, Hell, or The Underworld, I’d really rather not go anywhere where the entrance is guarded by a large, ill-tempered, three-headed dog. :-)

    • Leonidas Papadopoulos

      Hello Laurel,

      Thank you for commenting.

      I’m aware of the whole controversy and debate among astronomers and the general public concerning the definition of planet and Pluto’s status in particular and I didn’t want to dwell into that much in the article.

      The reason I mentioned Pluto as an ex-planet, is because I personally agree with the IAU’s third criterion of the official definition of planets, which says that in order to be considered a planet, a celestial body has to clear the neighbourhood around its orbit.

      I find the case with Pluto, to be similar to the case of the first asteroid discoveies of the 19th century. For more than 50 years until around 1850, the first asteroids to be discovered were really considered as planets, to be re-classified later as more asteroid discoveries saw the light of day. In a similar fashion, Pluto can be seen as a typical member of the much larger Kuiper Belt family of objects which extends beyond the orbit of Neptune.

      Classifications aside, Pluto is still a fascinating world to be explored within the last trully unknown region of the Solar System. As such, I’m eagerly awaiting the first close-up photographs from New Horizons in 2015!

      As for Hades, indeed it was just the mythological abode of the dead. If there was something in Greek mythology that was similar to the contemporary concept of ‘hell’, that was Tartarus, a place of eternal torment and suffering.

      With kind regards,
      Leonidas Papadopoulos

  • This is going to be one of the most fascinating missions ever. To see Pluto up close is going to be as educational as it will be fun. Isn’t it the last planet of our solar system to be studied?

    • Leonidas Papadopoulos

      Indeed Jim, it will be one of the most exciting missions ever. You only get to see a place for the first time, once! And depending on one’s definition of planet, Pluto (along with Ceres) is the last (small) planetary body left unexplored in the Solar System.

  • Jim: You are spot on! It will be fun, exciting and a fitting tribute to Clyde. The 9th plant revealed at last!