Wake Me In 9 Years: 9 Questions For NASA’s New Horizons

Geek Culture


Artist rendering credit: JHUAPL/SwRI via NASA

More than 3 and 1/2 years ago, a rocket lifted off from Cape Canaveral carrying New Horizons, our planet’s first mission dedicated to Pluto. Located at the farthest reaches of our solar system, Pluto is one of the largest objects we’ve been able to detect at that distance. For the astronomically uninitiated, Pluto is on average 3.67 billion miles distant from Earth. That’s 40 times further from the Sun, than our current home!

So how long does it take to get there? Currently, the New Horizons spacecraft is traveling at 51,000 miles per hour (think New York to LA in 3.5 seconds!) and will take another 5 years to reach its destination in the year 2015. Total time between launch and arrival is ten years!

For many of the project team members that started out in the design phase of the mission, it will have been a ride of 20+ years. The New Horizons mission will have witnessed kids move from elementary school up through graduation. And if the request for an extended mission is granted, the same kids will be well in to college by time the mission officially ends.

The team put together a great educational section on their website, including the Pluto Pals section that will follow babies born on the same day as the New Horizons launch date. They will track the lives of the Pluto babies along side the mission time line (how cool is that?!)

We’ve been lucky enough to have Leslie Young, Deputy Project Scientist for New Horizons and SwRI team member, answer a few questions about the mission for us.

1. New Horizons is currently in the interplanetary cruise phase. What types of monitoring are occurring and on what frequency?

Most of the time, we are in what’s called “hibernation”, when the spacecraft operates in a quiet mode, sending back a beacon signal each week. While in hibernation, the Student Dust Counter will be measuring dust in the outer solar system. Once a year, we perform spacecraft and instrument checkouts. We also wake the spacecraft up briefly to realign the high gain antenna with Earth as needed. This year, that will happen in November.

2. When will activity heat up for the mission?

It’s already red hot! We are planning the encounter now. The nine days near closest approach are completely planned and will be tested on our spacecraft simulator next week.

In terms of the science, we begin observing Pluto 170 days before closest approach (Fall 2014). A month before closest approach, we might “sniff” Pluto’s atmosphere with the plasma instruments. The week before closest approach gives us the best views of Pluto’s far side (Pluto rotates once every 6.4 days). Most of the best images and spectra are from the four hours before closest approach to the 2 hours after.

3. The mission was setup to be a “flyby” of the Pluto system. How hard would it have been to get on orbit?

We wanted to arrive at Pluto as soon as possible, and no later than 2010. This is because of the chance that Pluto’s atmosphere might freeze out onto Pluto’s surface as Pluto moves away from the sun, and because less of Pluto’s surface is sunlit as Pluto moves away from equinox. If we carried enough fuel to slow down to orbit Pluto, we would be much heavier and slower, and would arrive much later. Also, we want to fly on to one or more other Kuiper Belt objects, which means we needed a flyby.

4. How much time will it take to receive signals back from New Horizons?

The one-way light time is about 4 1/2 hours. Within a day and a half, we will send down a quick look sample of the data near closest approach, but it will take most of a year to send all our data.

5. The flyby is set for 24 hours of intense data gathering, how many gigabytes of data is the team expecting?

For the nine days near closest approach (7 days before to 2 days after), we are collecting 4.5 Gigabytes of data.

6. Both Voyager spacecraft (launched in the 1970′s) are still returning excellent data. Beyond the proposed Kuiper Belt phase, will New Horizons still be able to perform science from the edges of our home system?

This will depend on whether we can keep our mission operations running. (GD note: start lobbying your friendly neighborhood congressional rep for continued/increased space exploration funding now; that is all)

7. The New Horizons team is changing over time. What suggestions do you have for that high school senior or 1st year college student that would like to get involved with the project and become part of the team in time for the big event in 2015?

The best way for a college student to get involved is to get in touch with a member of the science team to see if there is a scientific problem you could work on with one of the Pluto scientists. The list of Co-Is and their institutions is here: http://pluto.jhuapl.edu/mission/team.php

8. When the project is complete, how many years (design to extended phase) will you have spent on this project?

It will be 21 years from 1999 to 2020, from my first involvement in the instruments that we are flying to Pluto to the expected end of data downlink from a KBO. I’ve been working on Pluto my entire professional life, starting in 1987, and I expect to be writing papers using New Horizons data until they bury me.

9. A few months after the launch of New Horizons, Pluto was reclassified as a dwarf planet. There is still a lot of controversy over that decision. Do you think that by time New Horizons has arrived, Pluto will have regained its place in the solar system as a true planet?

Nobody thinks that Pluto is less interesting than it was before. The creation of the term “dwarf planet” isn’t because we learned that Pluto was small or inert or insignificant. In fact, IAU felt it had to come up with that term because the entire outer solar system is now known to be full of diverse and interesting objects.

We have a capable and healthy spacecraft on its way to Pluto, and ongoing observations and models here on Earth are helping us learn more about Pluto every year. Call it what you like, I’m having too much fun to care!

GD note: And how right she is. Best of luck to the New Horizons team. We’ll touch base in 5 years!

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