MAY 18, 2015 05:43 AM PDT

Anticipation Is High As a Pluto Fly-By Gets Closer

It may have been stripped of its status as a full-fledged planet, but that doesn't mean scientists have lost interest in Pluto. NASA's New Horizons space probe is hurtling towards what they now call a "dwarf planet system" and hopefully nothing will stand in its way.
An artist's interpretation of Pluto, with its moon Charon
As with any space mission, planning is the name of the game. From now until July 14, 2014 there will be weekly surveys of the approach area with the probe's onboard camera, looking for anything that could be dangerous but also anything not yet seen, like moons or rings.

New Horizons moves at a pretty fast pace, even in terms of rocket speed. Its currently bopping along at 32,570 mph so it's crucial that the team know about any possible obstacles it could encounter along the way.
If they should come upon an obstacle the scientists overseeing the mission from the ground have two possible solutions.

They could use the craft's antenna and point it forward, to deflect any debris and shield the probe.
John Spencer, the scientist who is leading the search for hazards said in a statement, "That change would hurt our science significantly, because we wouldn't have the freedom to point in all the directions we'd like."

The other solution is to change course. The team has already figured out three alternate routes, two of which are very similar to the current path the probe is on. If they must use the third approach the mission could be impacted significantly since that route would take the probe much closer to Pluto. Pictures would not be as sharp and the New Horizons handlers would have to perform an engine burn about two weeks before the fly-by.

Taken all together, the series of events and plans that have to be meticulously orchestrated between now and July 14 when the probe will pass close to Pluto's surface and capture images never before seen are a daunting task for the team.

New Horizons principal investigator, Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Colorado said in an interview with Space.com, "You know how Curiosity had its 'seven minutes of terror?'" said referring to the NASA Mars rover's nail-biting landing in August 2012 via a "sky crane." "Well, we call this 'seven weeks of suspense.'"

While not yet approved or funded by NASA, the New Horizons team has some ideas for more exploration after the probe passes Pluto. The Kuiper Belt, where Pluto is located could have other objects of interest to the team. Their analysis of data from the Hubble Space Telescope indicates that it might be possible to detect and observe other moons or dwarf planets. The objects in this area are quite small and so far the only ones that have been spotted are well past the reach of New Horizons because of the fuel it would take for the probe to get there.

In the meantime, the New Horizons team is staying busy preparing for a historic view of what was once a planet and is now the solar system's star of the show.

Sources: Wikipedia, Space.com, YouTube, NASA

Check out the video below for details on the historic New Horizons mission to Pluto:
About the Author
  • I'm a writer living in the Boston area. My interests include cancer research, cardiology and neuroscience. I want to be part of using the Internet and social media to educate professionals and patients in a collaborative environment.
You May Also Like
OCT 21, 2019
Space & Astronomy
OCT 21, 2019
Can We Prevent Phobos' Inevitable Demise?
Mars has two natural satellites: Deimos and Phobos; the latter orbits Mars closer than any other moon orbiting the other planets in the solar system, and i...
OCT 21, 2019
Space & Astronomy
OCT 21, 2019
Everything You Need to Know About SpaceX's Starlink Satellite System
After unforeseen delays, SpaceX officially deployed 60 of its Starlink satellites into space at the end of last month to kick off the company’s space...
OCT 21, 2019
Space & Astronomy
OCT 21, 2019
This ISS-Based Experiment Could Benefit Parkinson's Disease Patients
Astronauts on the International Space Station do a whole lot more than spacewalk and glance out the window at the beautiful planet Earth. They also conduct...
OCT 21, 2019
Space & Astronomy
OCT 21, 2019
The Science Behind the First Powered Flight on Another Planet
NASA’s upcoming Mars 2020 mission involves much more than just another land-based rover – it will also pioneer the very first powered flight on...
OCT 21, 2019
Space & Astronomy
OCT 21, 2019
Why a Metal Asteroid Tops NASA's Must-Explore List
Innumerable amounts of asteroids exist in the asteroid belt that resides between Mars and Jupiter in orbit around the Sun, but one specimen in particular a...
OCT 21, 2019
Space & Astronomy
OCT 21, 2019
How the Rosetta Mission Augmented Our Understanding of Comets
The European Space Agency (ESA) launched its Rosetta mission in 2004 to study the particularly captivating comet 67P, and after a ten-year journey, the mis...
Loading Comments...