New Horizons Flyby - Closest Approach
It’s showtime for New Horizons. Launched on January 19, 2006, it was the fastest spacecraft ever. It passed the orbit of the moon in just 8 hours and 35 minutes. In February of 2007 it swung around Jupiter to get a little “gravity assist,” to save on fuel and help the probe make it to its final destinations. This earth-morning, after traveling 3 billion miles / 5 billion kilometers for almost a decade, New Horizons’ closest approach to Pluto occurred at 7:49:57am EST. (I find it a little funny to refer to an event happening at the edge of our solar system in Eastern Time.)
LORRI (Long Range Reconnaissance Imager), part of New Horizons’ payload, will continue its photography intensive mission – recently delivering the image featured in this post- better than our previous images of Pluto from the Hubble Space Telescope. (I have to pause to say “no offense” to my Aunt Carol who works at the Space Telescope Institute.)
This is an incredible moment, even if Pluto isn’t a planet anymore. LORRI will be able to take images of Pluto and its moons from a mere 6,000km away. For comparison, it could take images of earth from that height and see the shapes of buildings on the surface of our planet.
Soon we will go from not-knowing to knowing what it looks like. Every (good) science textbook that is published from now on will have a clear image of Pluto instead of the artistic renderings I got as a kid, or the grainy Hubble images the kids after me saw.
We won’t start getting images, however, until after New Horizons passes the Pluto system and completes the most intense portion of its data gathering. Then it will spend 26 months sending us all the data it collected. The first images will likely start coming in later tonight (we will post updates).
The excitement must be tempered with a note of caution; the close flyby is also the most dangerous for the probe as it will be more susceptible to objects caught in Pluto’s gravity, even though it is not going to crash into any of the moons. The chances of this are relatively unlikely though. As soon as it passes the system it will send earth telemetry letting us know if it is OK.
Now, the rest of the mission for New Horizons is to first image the dark side of Pluto and then venture into and report back from the Kuiper Belt.
Image from NASA