NASA’s New Horizons within One AU of Pluto

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft is now less than one AU from Pluto and moving closer by 873,000 miles per day. This week it made a slight course correction to ensure it is able to complete the scientific objectives as it flies past the planet in July.

Launched in Jan 2006 the spacecraft has traveled past Jupiter on its way to the dwarf planet and will be the second NASA spacecraft this year to explore one this year.  As it continues to get closer the quality of the images that are returned will improve as we for the first time get to see detailed images of the planet.

Due to its speed the spacecraft will not be able to orbit the planet so all the experiments must be performed as the vehicle passes at more then 33,000 mph.  Once it has completed its observations a second destination will then be targeted somewhere in the Kuiper belt, the region of surrounding our solar system far beyond the known planets.  However while it is traveling to that destination it will spend most of 2016 transmitting all the data that was gathered during the flyby.

137125main_instruments_lgThe science payload includes seven instruments:

Ralph: Visible and infrared imager/spectrometer; provides color, composition and thermal maps.

Alice: Ultraviolet imaging spectrometer; analyzes composition and structure of Pluto’s atmosphere and looks for atmospheres around Charon and Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs).

REX: (Radio Science EXperiment) Measures atmospheric composition and temperature; passive radiometer.

LORRI: (Long Range Reconnaissance Imager) telescopic camera; obtains encounter data at long distances, maps Pluto’s farside and provides high resolution geologic data.

SWAP: (Solar Wind Around Pluto) Solar wind and plasma spectrometer; measures atmospheric “escape rate” and observes Pluto’s interaction with solar wind.

PEPSSI: (Pluto Energetic Particle Spectrometer Science Investigation) Energetic particle spectrometer; measures the composition and density of plasma (ions) escaping from Pluto’s atmosphere.

SDC: (Student Dust Counter) Built and operated by students; measures the space dust peppering New Horizons during its voyage across the solar system.

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