The ‘Ball of Ice’ is Once Again in the Limelight: NEW HORIZONS CLOSES IN ON PLUTO

After more than nine years in space, an expedition taking it farther to its main destination than any mission before it, NASA’’s New Horizons spacecraft is within one astronomical unit of Pluto.

New Horizons launched on Jan. 19, 2006, scientists have had a very long wait finally to get close-up views of their object.

As the mission closes in on its goal, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft has begun a series of observations, including the first color and spectral observations of Pluto and its moons.

Speeding along at approximately 50,000 km (over 31,000 miles) per hour, New Horizons is currently about 4.79 billion km (3 billion miles) from Earth and less than 111 million km (69 million miles) away from Pluto.

This mission which aspires to obtain a more detailed and improved image of the Pluto system, which has five known moons, is called Approach Phase 2 (AP2).

The spacecraft will take long-exposure images from now until mid-June looking for any additional moons or rings or any other hazards New Horizons could face as it passes between Pluto and its largest moon Charon.

The spacecraft will also take the first ultraviolet observation of the surface and atmosphere of Pluto and Charon.

Alan Stern, the mission’s principal investigator from Southwest Research Institute, said that they will continue the environmental modeling of the dust and plasma environment in AP2, and start to take initial ultraviolet and infrared spectra of Pluto.

The New Horizons science payload comprises of seven instruments, two plasma instruments to study solar wind interactions and atmospheric escape from Pluto, a dust sensor and radio science receiver/radiometer and three optical instruments.

Alice, is included to optical instruments, a sensitive ultraviolet imaging spectrometer which studies atmospheric composition and structure. Ralph studies surface composition and creates surface temperature maps, while the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) will provide the highest-resolution images.

LORRI should be sending back images that outdo Hubble-quality resolution by mid-May, showing Pluto in detail never seen before. Yet we have to wait until June or July before we see details of surface features.

This is the time when Pluto transforms from a planetary astronomer’s world.

Glen Fountain, the Mission Project Manager of Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), added that he is happy to be a part of this historic encounter at those mysterious worlds on the edge of the planetary frontier.

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