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.
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:
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