5 things you need to know about New Horizons’ flyby of Pluto

14 Jul 2015

Illustration of New Horizons approaching Pluto via NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/Steve Gribben/Alex Parker

New Horizons will offer us a glimpse of Pluto and its moon Charon like nothing that has ever been seen by humans before, and likely ever to again for decades. So what do you need to know for ‘d-day’?

After nine years and 3bn kilometres, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft will finally reach its end journey: Pluto, and its many mysteries will now be revealed.

As per the mission parameters, New Horizons will make its closest approach to the dwarf planet just 12,500km above Pluto, all while NASA’s crew wait anxiously for a reply from the craft that will be in radio silence as it fires on all cylinders to record as much data as possible using its plutonium-powered 228W battery.

So, while it may be 3bn kilometres away, it’s not completely out of reach for those of us not in NASA to follow its progress live thanks to the power of the internet.

1. What time is it happening?

Well the actual moment New Horizons will begin capturing the surface of Pluto will start at exactly 07.49 EDT (12.49pm Irish time) but this won’t be like watching a live broadcast of what we will see on Pluto.

Rather, we’ll be given the equally-exciting insight into what the New Horizons team will be doing in its operations headquarters, along with interviews with some of these team members.

At 07.30 EDT (12.30pm Irish time), NASA will begin streaming its countdown before it goes into radio silence with everyone waiting to see what will happen next…

2. When will we receive our first photos of Pluto?

Well, we certainly won’t be seeing any photos on 14 July from Pluto given that it takes four-and-a-half-hours from the craft to Earth, which again will take longer as it transmits hi-res images at such extreme distances.

The actual close-ups of the dwarf planet will be revealed by NASA on Wednesday (15 July) at a major conference held at New Horizons’ headquarters where from 15.00 EDT (8pm Irish time), we will finally see the images it has gathered from the craft.

Colour image of Pluto

Image taken of Pluto on 4 July via NASA

3. What are we likely to see?

We have been lucky enough to see some of the earliest footage that NASA has released from New Horizons, which has gradually progressed from grainy, distant images to the latest ones from 1.6m kilometres away showing geological structures.

What we now know is that Pluto is likely to have a number of steep cliff formations on one of its hemispheres while arguably the most intriguing is the bright, heart-shaped patch near its northern pole that shows the dwarf planet’s icy existence.

We know as well that the dwarf planet is of a similar hue to our nearest neighbour, Mars, so a reddish, rocky landscape is pretty well assured at this stage.

After that, we’ll just have to wait and see.

Annotated image of Pluto

Image via NASA

4. Is there a live tracker of the mission?

Aside from following NASA’s running commentary on NASA TV, there will be a feast of different options for you to choose from using the power of the internet.

For starters, you can download ‘NASA’s Eyes’, a desktop app for Mac and PC that you can download and look at New Horizons’ progress as it approaches Pluto in a cool 3D-generated environment.

Aside from being able to see how far New Horizons is from Pluto, it also gives you a live-feed of what its instruments are reading just as quickly as NASA are receiving them.

Otherwise, you can always keep a track of updates on NASA’s New Horizons Twitter handle, which will be drip-feeding information throughout the day.

5. So after it flies by Pluto, then what?

Never fear, New Horizons lovers. While the flyby is the most anticipated part of the mission, it won’t end once it flies by at its scheduled time.

According to NASA, a few days after the encounter with Pluto, New Horizons will carry on and train its vast array of instruments at the planet again to record the dwarf planet’s atmosphere.

More specifically, it will be looking for haze within its atmosphere and any sign of rings and dust sheets that could give greater insight into Pluto’s formation.

Also, NASA hopes to extend New Horizons’ mission for at least another five years, taking us to 2020, where it will be used to analyse one of three large objects in the Kuiper Belt, the region outside the solar system where the remnants of its formation lie.

This was not part of the original mission plan prior to launch but following the discovery of the three objects in 2014, NASA decided that it would use the craft’s remaining resources to analyse one of the three objects, each of which measure between 20-50km across.

This new mission will begin in 2017, all if NASA receives the necessary funding to continue the mission.

Click on the image below for a larger image of New Horizons‘ timeline.

Image via NASA

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic