NEW HORIZON AND PLUTO FLYBY

August 9, 2015


I remain absolutely amazed at the engineering effort involving the space probe NASA calls “NEW HORIZONS”.  The technology, hardware, software and communication package allowing the flyby is truly phenomenal—truly.  One thing that strikes me is the predictability of planetary movements so the proper trajectory may be accomplished.   Even though we live in an expanding universe, the physics and mathematics describing planetary motion is solid.  Let us take a very quick look at several specifics.

THE MISSION:

PROJECT

SPECIFICS:

  • LAUNCH:  January 19, 2006
  • Launch Vehicle:  Atlas V 551, first stage: Centaur Rocket, second stage: STAR 48B solid rocket third stage
  • Launch Location:  Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida
  • Trajectory:  To Pluto via Jupiter Gravity Assist
  • The teams had to hone the New Horizons spacecraft’s 3 billion plus-mile flight trajectory to fit inside a rectangular flyby delivery zone measuring only 300 kilometers by 150 kilometers. This level of accuracy and control truly blows my mind.
  • New Horizon used both radio and optical navigation for the journey to Pluto.  Pluto is only about half the size of our Moon and circles our Sun roughly every 248 years. (I mentioned predictability earlier.  Now you see what I mean. )
  • The New Horizon craft is traveling 36,373 miles per hour and has traversed 4.67 billion miles in nine (9) years.
  • New Horizon will come as close as 7,800 miles from the surface of Pluto.
  • Using LORRI (Long Range Reconnaissance Imager) — the most crucial instrument for optical navigation on the spacecraft; the New Horizon team took short 100 to 150 millisecond exposures to minimize image smear. Such images helped give the teams an estimate of the direction from the spacecraft to Pluto.
  •  The photographs from the flyby are sensational and very detailed relative to what was expected.
  • The spacecraft flew by the Pluto–Charon system on July 14, 2015, and has now completed the science of its closest approach phase. New Horizons has signaled the event by a “phone home” with telemetry reporting that the spacecraft was healthy, its flight path was within the margins, and science data of the Pluto–Charon system had been recorded.

HARDWARE:

The hardware for the mission is given with the graphic below.  From this pictorial we see the following sub-systems:

  • PEPSSI
  • SWAP
  • LORRI
  • SDC
  • RALPH
  • ALICE
  • REX(HGA)

The explanation for each sub-system is given with the graphic.   As you can see:  an extremely complex piece of equipment representing many hours of engineering design and overall effort.

 

HARDWARE

GOALS FOR THE MISSION:

The goal of the mission is to understand the formation of the Pluto system, the Kuiper belt, and the transformation of the early Solar System.  This understanding will greatly aid our efforts in understanding how our own planet evolved over the centuries.  New Horizon will study the atmospheres, surfaces, interiors and environments of Pluto and its moons.  It will also study other objects in the Kuiper belt.  By way of comparison, New Horizons will gather 5,000 times as much data at Pluto as Mariner did at Mars.  Combine the data from New Horizons with the data from the Mariner mission and you have complementary pieces of a fascinating puzzle.

Some of the questions the mission will attempt to answer are: What is Pluto’s atmosphere made of and how does it behave?  What does its surface look like? Are there large geological structures? How do solar wind particles interact with Pluto’s atmosphere?

Specifically, the mission’s science objectives are to:

  • map the surface composition of Pluto and Charon
  • characterize the geology and morphology of Pluto and Charon
  • characterize the neutral atmosphere of Pluto and its escape rate
  • search for an atmosphere around Charon
  • map surface temperatures on Pluto and Charon
  • search for rings and additional satellites around Pluto
  • conduct similar investigations of one or more Kuiper belt objects

NOTE:  Charon is also called (134340) Pluto I and is the largest of the five known moons of Pluto.  It was discovered in 1978 at the United States Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C., using photographic plates taken at the United States Naval Observatory Flagstaff Station (NOFS). It is a very large moon in comparison to its parent body, Pluto. Its gravitational influence is such that the center of the Pluto–Charon system lies outside Pluto.

HISTORY:

When it was first discovered, Pluto was the coolest planet in the solar system. Before it was even named, TIME that “the New Planet,” 50 times farther from the sun than Earth, “gets so little heat from the sun that most substances of Earth would be frozen solid or into thick jellies.”

The astronomer Clyde W. Tombaugh, then a 24-year-old research assistant at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Ariz., was the first to find photographic evidence of a ninth planet on this day, February 18, 85 years ago.  His discovery launched a worldwide scramble to name the frozen, farthest-away planet. Since the astronomer Percival Lowell had predicted its presence fifteen (15) years earlier, per TIME, and even calculated its approximate position based on the irregularity of Neptune’s orbit, the team at Lowell Observatory considered his widow’s suggestion of “Percival,” but found it not quite planetary enough. The director of the Harvard Observatory suggested “Cronos,” the sickle-wielding son of Uranus in Greek myth.  But the team opted instead for “Pluto,” the Roman god of the Underworld — the suggestion of an 11-year-old British schoolgirl who told the BBC she was enthralled with Greek and Roman mythology. Her grandfather had read to her from the newspaper about the planet’s discovery, and when she proposed the name, he was so taken with it that he brought it to the attention of a friend who happened to be an astronomy professor at Oxford University. The Lowell team went for Pluto partly because it began with Percival Lowell’s initials.

Pluto the Disney dog, it should be noted, had nothing to do with the girl’s choice. Although the cartoon character also made its first appearance in 1930, it did so shortly after the planet was named, as the BBC noted. While Pluto was downgraded to “dwarf planet” status in 2006, it remains a popular subject for astronomers. They began discovering similar small, icy bodies during the 1990s in the same region of the solar system, which has become known as the Kuiper Belt. Just because Pluto’s not alone doesn’t make it any less fascinating, according to Alan Stern, director of a NASA mission, New Horizons that will explore and photograph Pluto in an unprecedented spacecraft flyby on July 14 of this year.

“This epic journey is very much the Everest of planetary exploration,” Stern wrote in TIME last month. “Pluto was the first of many small planets discovered out there, and it is still both the brightest and the largest one known.”

NASA released its first images of Pluto from the New Horizons mission earlier this month, although the probe was still 126 million miles away from its subject; the release was timed to coincide with Tombaugh’s birthday. Stern wrote, when the pictures were released, “These images of Pluto, clearly brighter and closer than those New Horizons took last July from twice as far away, represent our first steps at turning the pinpoint of light Clyde saw in the telescopes at Lowell Observatory eighty-five (85) years ago, into a planet before the eyes of the world this summer.”

CONCLUSION:

AMAZING ENGINEERING ACCOMPLISHMENT!

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