A New Horizon.
In less than a week, a space probe will pass near enough to the object known as Pluto to photograph it clearly for the first time in human history. On July 14th, the New Horizons space probe will will conduct a ‘flyby’ of Pluto and it’s moons before exiting our Solar System forever.
The photo above was taken July 5th, 2015, from a distance of approximately 9.2 to 7.8 million miles from the dwarf planet. It is remarkable in that this image clearly depicts the variations in color and materials on the planet’s surface, something that was imperceptible even to the Hubble Space Telescope, which had been used to image Pluto and its moons in preparation for this mission.
The New Horizons spacecraft is much like it’s legendary predecessor, the Voyager and Mariner series probes. Unlike the contemporary Mars exploration craft, New Horizons will not enter in orbit around Pluto, but pass rapidly by, pointing it’s array of sensors at the target object in hopes of gathering as much data as possible in that short window of time.
Launched from Cape Canaveral in January of 2006, the spacecraft has traveled some 3 billion miles to reach it’s destination. The timeline and flight path depicted below helps to illustrate the journey that took place over the last 9 years:
Unlike the other planets in our system, Pluto stands out, and not just for it’s diminutive mass and volume. Furthest of the most famous nine planets, Pluto was that last to be discovered (1930) and will now be the latest to be explored. It’s very nature has eluded astronomers and planetary scientists, who’ve adopted numerous theories to its makeup and origin.
Using a variety of instruments developed by institutions from around the country, the New Horizons team will undoubtedly collect vast amounts of data that offer new solutions to the more confounding issues surrounding the nature of Pluto.
For those of you who are avid space enthusiasts like myself, the controversy over Pluto and it’s place in the scientific nomenclature is not a new story. For that reason, I won’t repeat it all here. For those who unfamiliar, I encourage you to sleuth the web and follow the dialogue of Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, Dr. Mike Brown, Dr. Alan Stern and the debates centered around the International Astronomical Union.
The New Horizons mission is led by the same Dr. Stern mentioned above. He has made acclaim for his research in a number of planetary science programs, but none so much as New Horizons. His public outreach to the general public has served a pulpit of sorts, a venue for his dissenting opinion regarding the “demotion” of Pluto from being labeled a “planet” to “dwarf planet”.
Terminology aside, Dr. Stern has helped to make New Horizons a publicly recognized name and the upcoming rendezvous an international media event. In an age of short attentions spans and politically motivated media bylines, that is a commendable accomplishment. His story was recently the focus of an article in Air and Space magazine:
What that article of course will not tell you is how much of a influence Dr. Stern has been to me personally. If one were to ask me who were some the people whom were the most significant influences in my life (topic for a future blog post?), Dr. Alan Stern would make that list. Although I’m not a planetary scientist, or a member of the New Horizons research team, I consider Dr. Stern to be a most singular role model. Before I left the active service, I was exploring every option I could find to continue flying professionally that I could find. My extensive internet searches brought me to a webpage describing a program by which a planetary scientist was flying aboard one of NASA’s F/A-18 jets to observe small orbital bodies. Obviously, I was hooked. Who was this man? And how did he get to do such cool things!?
Further inquiry brought me more details- lessons in tenacity, innovation, and determined sense of discovery. From his appointment to NASA, leading the Suborbital Applications Research Group, and training to be a suborbital astronaut, I have followed his endeavors closely. Regardless your opinion of the Pluto designation debate, one has to acknowledge that’s not a shabby example to emulate. His accomplishments have been an inspiration to me, another guidepost on my own path to achieving more.
I encourage you to red more about the New Horizons mission and follow the discoveries that will take place over the next 6 days: https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/newhorizons/overview/index.html