Thursday, February 27, 2014

New Horizons Mission Update 2/27/14




NH spacecraft at Pluto

Elapsed Mission Time:
Beginning 1/19/06 19:00:00 UTC
2961 Days (8.11 yrs.) 07 Hours 58 Minutes

Pluto Closest Encounter
Operations Begin:
4/12/15 00:00:00 UTC
407 Days (1.12 yrs.) 21 Hours 01 Minutes

Pluto Closest Approach:
7/14/15 11:49:59 UTC
501 Days (1.37 yrs.) 08 Hours 50 Minutes


New Horizons sailed past another milepost today when the NASA spacecraft moved to within four astronomical units (AU) of Pluto – which is less than four times the distance between the Earth and the sun, or about 371 million miles (598 million kilometers).   "We're as close to the Pluto system now as Earth ever gets to Jupiter, a first for any spacecraft,” says New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern.


NH pluto sign

Since launch on January 19, 2006, New Horizons has covered nearly 2.89 billion miles (4.62 billion kilometers). It makes a temporal connection with one NASA’s legendary deep-space explorers this summer when it crosses the orbit of Neptune on Aug. 25 — exactly 25 years after Voyager 2 made its historic flight past that giant planet. When New Horizons arrives at Pluto on July 14, 2015, it will have traveled farther than any spacecraft ever has to reconnoiter its prime target. An astronomical unit (AU) is the average distance between the Earth and sun, about 93 million miles or 149 million kilometers. New Horizons’ journey from Earth to Pluto will have covered more than 32 AU. when it reaches its destination.


NH Distances


New Horizons Course and Position in Two Dimensions:

# 1


NH #1


NH #2

Friday, February 7, 2014

New Horizons Mission Update 2/7/14


NH and flag


Mission Elapsed Time:
Beginning 1/19/06 19:00:00 UTC
2941 Days (8.06 yrs.) 08 Hours 12 Minutes

Pluto Closest Encounter
Operations Begin:
12/4/15 00:00:00 UTC
427 Days (1.67 yrs.) 20 Hours 48 Minutes

Pluto Closest Approach:
14/7/15 11:49:00 UTC
521 Days (1.42 yrs.) 08 Hours 37 Minutes

New Horizons completed a quick, two-week maintenance wakeup on Jan. 17 and is back in hibernation. They will wake the craft again in mid-June for the last active checkout, lasting about 10 weeks, on the journey to Pluto. Then back to hibernation again from late August through early December, and then they will wake New Horizons  for the encounter that she was built for.  By this time next year, New Horizons will be executing the earliest phases of the Pluto system encounter. Closest approach is now just 17 months away! That may seem like a while to you, but after almost 97 months in flight, it’s just around the corner to the team. Most people may not appreciate it, but 2014 is the last year, forever, that Pluto and its moons will be known only as points of light or smudgy images to humankind.

New Horizons Course and Position in two Dimensions:


NH #1


NH #2

Beginning this summer, the team will take you along with them more intimately on their preparations to explore the Pluto system.  The stories they are  going to tell as the encounter approaches, culminates and recedes will cover more than the progress of the encounter flight plan and the data we’ll receive —though those elements will certainly be covered well too. But in addition, it will also tell the story of how and why this mission was funded – by being ranked the No. 1 priority of the National Academy’s 2000s decadal survey in planetary science. Also, they will be talk about U.S. leadership and preeminence in planetary exploration, of which New Horizons is a one kind of demonstration. But there’s more.


Total Time of Pluto and Vicinity Encounter Observations

They will discuss the danger of debris strikes that our lone spacecraft may face as it flashes through the Pluto system on the morning of Tuesday, July 14, 2015 – and the decisions the team will have to make concerning those risks. They will discuss  the extreme degree of persistence it took on the part of the scientific community and the mission team, withering five cancellations, a plutonium fuel shortage, the death of key project engineers, and more, to get this mission funded, and built and launched on a schedule so tight that many people thought it could not be done.

pluto_closest encounter3

They will discuss what planetary scientists have discovered lately about the diversity of planets in our solar system — and that vast, new, third zone of the solar system called the Kuiper Belt. They are going to talk about New Horizons launching faster and going farther than any space mission ever has to reach its prime target. They will talk about the high-tech miniaturization that makes New Horizons the successor to the Voyagers at only a fraction of their size, mass and cost.  They will  talk about humankind’s insatiable urge to explore new frontiers.

Science at the Frontier:

Our solar system contains three zones: the inner, rocky planets; the gas giant planets; and the Kuiper Belt. Pluto is one of the largest bodies of the icy, "third zone" of our solar system. The National Academy of Sciences placed the exploration of the third zone in general - and Pluto-Charon in particular - among its highest priority planetary mission rankings for this decade. New Horizons is NASA's mission to fulfill this objective.


The Pluto Solar System and it’s newly discovered and named moons

In those zones, our solar system has three classes of planets: the rocky worlds (Earth, Venus, Mercury and Mars); the gas giants (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune); and the ice dwarfs of the Kuiper Belt. There are far more ice dwarf planets than rocky and gas giant worlds combined - yet, no spacecraft has been sent to a planet in this class. The National Academy of Sciences noted that our knowledge of planetary types is therefore seriously incomplete. As the first mission to investigate this new class of planetary bodies, New Horizons will fill this important gap and round out our knowledge of the planets in our solar system.

NH Distance 3

As of Today

Binary Planet:

Pluto's largest moon, Charon, is half the size of Pluto. The pair form a binary planetary system, whose gravitational balance point is between the two bodies. Although binary planets are thought to be common in the galaxy, as are binary stars, no spacecraft has yet explored one. New Horizons will be the first mission to explore a binary object of any type.

Pluto and charon

Charon as seen from the surface of Pluto

Ancient Relics:


Largest Known Kuiper Belt Objects

The ice dwarfs are planetary embryos, whose growth stopped at sizes (200 to 2,000 kilometers across) much smaller than the full-grown planets in the inner solar system and the gas giants region. The ice dwarfs are ancient relics that formed over 4 billion years ago. Because they are literally the bodies out of which the larger planets accumulated, the ice dwarfs have a great deal to teach us about planetary formation. New Horizons seeks those answers.

A Mission with Impact:

The Kuiper Belt is the major source of cometary impactors on Earth, like the impactor that wiped out the dinosaurs. New Horizons will shed new light on the number of such Kuiper Belt impactors as a function of their size by cataloging the various-sized craters on Pluto, its moons, and on Kuiper Belt Objects.  Pluto and the Kuiper Belt are known to be heavily endowed with organic (carbon-bearing) molecules and water ice — the raw materials out of which life evolves. New Horizons will explore the composition of this material on the surfaces of Pluto, its moons and Kuiper Belt Objects.

The Need to Explore:

As the first voyage to a whole new class of planets in the farthest zone of the solar system, New Horizons is a historic mission of exploration. The United States has made history by being the first nation to reach every planet from Mercury to Neptune with a space probe. The New Horizons mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt - the first NASA launch to a "new" planet since Voyager more than 30 years ago - allows the U.S. to complete the reconnaissance of the solar system.

NH Kuiper Belt Rings


NH Interplanetary Cruise


Into the Kuiper Belt:

Plans for an extended mission include one to two encounters with Kuiper Belt Objects, ranging from about 25 to 55 miles (40 to 90 kilometers) in diameter. New Horizons would acquire the same data it collected at Pluto - where applicable - and follow a timeline similar to the Pluto  encounter:

Closest Approach - 4 weeks: object observations
Closest Approach + 2 weeks: post-encounter studies
Closest Approach + 2 months: all data returned to Earth

New Horizons: Going for the Planetary Gold Medal of the Planetary Space Olympics:

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

New Horizons Mission Update 1/8/14


NH spacecraft at Pluto


Mission Elapsed Time:
Beginning 1/19/06 19:00:00 UTC
2911 Days (7.96 yrs.) 08 Hours 23 Minutes

Pluto Closest Encounter
Operations Begin:
4/12/15 00:00:00 UTC
457 Days (1.25 yrs.) 20 Hours 36 Minutes

Pluto Closest Approach:

7/14/15 11:49:59: UTC
551 Days (1.51 yrs.) 08 Hours 25 Minutes


With Pluto encounter operations now just a year away, the New Horizons team has brought the spacecraft out of hibernation for the first of several activities planned for 2014.   Mission operators at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, Md., “woke” New Horizons on Jan. 5. Over the next two weeks the team will test the spacecraft’s antenna and repoint it toward Earth; upload commands into the onboard Guidance and Control and Command and Data Handling systems, including a check on the backup inertial measurement unit and update of the spacecraft’s navigational star charts; and conduct some navigational tracking, among other routine maintenance duties. “We’ve had busier wakeup periods, but with long-distance Pluto encounter operations starting only a year from now, every activity is important,” says APL’s Alice Bowman, New Horizons mission operations manager.

The pace of operations picks up significantly later this year. In late June the team will wake New Horizons for two and a half months of work, including optical-navigation (“homing”) activities using the Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) to refine the probe’s course to Pluto. The team will also check out the spacecraft’s backup systems and science instruments; carry out a small course correction to trim up New Horizons’ approach trajectory and closest-approach timing at Pluto; and gather some science data by measuring the variations in Pluto’s and Charon’s brightness as they rotate.

New Horizons Position in 2 Dimensions:


NH #1




New Horizons: Solar System Distances:

NH distance


New Horizons is placed back into electronic slumber on Aug. 29, a “rest” that lasts only until Dec. 7. “From there it will stay awake for two years of Pluto encounter preparations, operations and data downlinks,” Bowman says.  Distant-encounter operations begin Jan. 12, 2015.

“The future has finally arrived,” says New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo. “After all the time and miles in the rearview mirror, the turning of the calendar page last week to 2014 means we'll be exploring the Pluto system next year!”

The Student Dust Counter (SDC) flies aboard the New Horizons mission, a NASA mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt. A dust counter is an instrument that counts particles of dust in space; the SDC collects this information when grains of dust hit the instrument as it travels to Pluto.  The SDC will travel out into the solar system 40 times the distance from the Earth to the sun, or 40 astronomical units. The record-holding dust counter, on Pioneer, only measured dust to about 18 astronomical units.  As it travels to Pluto and beyond, SDC will provide information on the dust that strikes the spacecraft during its fourteen-year journey across the solar system. These observations will advance our understanding of the origin and evolution of our own solar system, as well as helping scientists study planet formation in dust disks around other stars.


Student Dust Counter

Compared to previous, similarly designed dust counters, the SDC is lighter—only 1.6 kilograms (3.5 pounds)—uses less power, and was much less expensive to develop. Stringent constraints on mass, power, and budget are part of any planetary or space mission; these characteristics help make SDC an attractive dust instrument for future missions.  The SDC has a set of detectors, about the size of an 18 x 12-inch cake pan, which detect incoming particles. The detectors are made of a plastic film called Polyvinylidine Fluoride (PVDF). The detectors are all mounted to a large piece of honeycombed aluminum, which is then bolted with aluminum feet to the New Horizons spacecraft.

NH Dust Density

A computer simulation of the density of dust throughout the solar system.

The Student Dust Counter has three main goals:

1) To map dust distribution and density. Dust is not spread evenly throughout space; it varies in density throughout the solar system.

2) To help scientists understand variation in where different-sized particles are located in the solar system.

3) To determine how fast the Kuiper Belt produces dust. The small, icy bodies in the Kuiper Belt are constantly colliding and causing little bits of each other to chip off. Through additional collisions over time, these chips are ground to dust; scientists want to understand how quickly this process happens.

The New Horizons spacecraft has a high-gain antenna that transmits scientific data about dust back to Earth as radio waves. Moving at the speed of light, it still takes the data hours to arrive at Earth. For example, from Pluto, the data will take four hours to arrive at the NASA Deep Space Network here on Earth. The Network receives the data and sends it out to the New Horizons team.

NH High Gain Antenna

The high-gain antenna on the New Horizons spacecraft

Comparing with past mission data:

Scientists have already completed initial comparisons SDC data to existing data. The first results, published in Geophysical Research Letters, indicate that SDC measurements of dust inside 5 astronomical units agree well with the earlier measurements made by the Galileo and Ulysses missions.

Testing theories:

Scientists will not be comparing SDC data on dust further out than 18 astronomical units to other missions because such data doesn't exist. Instead, scientists will be testing their theoretical understanding of dust in the solar system, adjusting their theories to accommodate the new data.

Improving computer simulations:

Scientists will also compare the SDC data retrieved to several computer simulations of expected dust distribution and density. Computer models of the dynamics of Kuiper-Belt dust grains show that dust tends to get trapped near Neptune in sync with the planet's orbit. SDC will take data in this region so that scientists can improve their computer models with real data.

NH Dust panels
The detector panels of the SDC are being assembled in this image.

Each time a dust particle hits a detector, the electronics store five pieces of data:

1. Detector number that the dust particle hit

2. Minimum sensitivity of the detector

3. Size of the electronic pulse generated, which is turned into the particle  size using ground calibrations

4. Time of impact

5. Time of day the data was streamed to Earth

NH Vis Dust Count sig.

A visualization of data generated from the SDC.

After scientists receive all the data from the SDC and ensure that the instrument has worked properly, the next step is to analyze the data.  Data analysis can be difficult. If the data differs greatly from what scientists were expecting to find, they have to decide whether their instrument was wrong, or whether their theories were wrong. If the data is what was expected, scientists have to make sure they've analyzed it correctly so no bias occurs. If scientists come to the conclusion that their data are valid and good, then they determine what new information they have gained.

A team of 20 students from the University of Colorado have collaborated, designed, and built the SDC for the New Horizons Mission.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

New Horizons Mission Update 12/26/13


NH spacecraft at Pluto


Mission Elapsed Time:
Beginning 19/1/06, 19:00:00
2898 Days (7.94 yrs.) 07 Hours 40 Minutes

Pluto Closest Encounter
Operations Begin:

12/4/15, 00:00:00 UTC
470 Days (1.38 yrs.) 21 Hours 19 Minutes

Pluto Closest Approach:
14/7/15, 11:49:15 UTC
564 Days (1.55 yrs.) 09 Hours 08 Minutes


For some reason this report came out late.  It must have been caused by the budget crisis and the sequester.   All  of NASA  was shut down as a result and it. It appears to have taken awhile for the missions to get up and running again like they had been doing in the past.  If it wasn't for Obama there may not be a NASA as Romney was against doing anything in space calling it a foolish endeavor and a waste of money.  But now to get on with what has been going on with this mission.

For someone who just came back from the future, Mark Holdridge looked pretty relaxed. The New Horizons mission manager sat outside mission control at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory last July 14, watching the closing moments of a weeklong test of both team and spacecraft that replicated the closest nine days of flight toward and past Pluto – almost exactly as it will happen in July 2015. 

But before we begin that we must check out New Horizons current course and location:

New Horizons Course and Position in Three Dimensions:


Pluto #1


Pluto #2


Pluto #3


“We accomplished everything we set out to do, and then some,” said Holdridge, who oversees the effort to plan each step of the New Horizons Pluto encounter. “Everything was very much as it will be in 2015. I think that’s what really allowed us to learn a lot from the experience, figure out how to do things even better.”

Practice, Practice, Practice Part 1

For nine days in July 2013, it was July 2015. Operators programmed New Horizons’ onboard computers to “think” the spacecraft was approaching and passing Pluto, to the point it executed each command and movement of the actual encounter. Gathered at APL’s campus in Laurel, Md., mission navigation and operations teams guided spacecraft activity in real time; the science team examined simulated data in the same way they’ll download, analyze and distribute the real stuff when Pluto and its moons slowly reveal their secrets to New Horizons’ seven science instruments.

Practice, Practice Practice Part 2

“This rehearsal was the last big flight-vehicle practice we conduct before the encounter,” said Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator from Southwest Research Institute. “Each aspect of it gets us ready for the one and only shot we’ll have to explore the Pluto system.”

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

New Horizons Mission Update 10/23/13





It seems all the NASA program missions are now checking in now that the problem with Congress is over.  Most people don't even think about space exploration in their everyday lives.  The are just concerned about things on Earth and their future on Earth not in Space.  If they really understood that the Earth will not last forever then they would be thinking about migrating to anther world (or think of taking steps to preserve their race in the future by doing so).  The cost of the NASA programs are insignificant compared to all  the rest of the things the US Government spends money on and some of that not to wisely either.  Anyway here is the latest about the New Horizons Mission:


Mission Elapsed Time:
1/19/06, 19:00:00 UTC
2834 Days (7.76 yrs.) 06 Hours 34 Minutes

Pluto Closest Encounter Operations Begin:
4/12/15, 00:00:00 UTC
543 Days (1.49 yrs.) 22 Hours 25 Minutes

Pluto Closest Approach:
7/14/15, 11:49:59 UTC
628 Days (1.72 yrs.)10 Hours 14 Minutes


New Horizons Position and Course in 3 Dimensions:


NH #1



NH #2


NH #3


What does New Horizons say when it calls home? Nothing, without the help of software that transforms zeros and ones from New Horizons’ computers into images, instrument readings, or useful information on the spacecraft’s status. Those datasets are then transmitted to Earth by the telecommunications (radio) system aboard New Horizons.The New Horizons team uses these ranging measurements to determine the spacecraft’s orbit, or its precise location in space. The DSN station modulates a ranging code and transmits it to the spacecraft, which demodulates the code (essentially processing the signal to receive the data) and transmits back to Earth. The DSN station then measures the round-trip time delay – in seconds – between transmission and reception of the ranging code. The measurement allows the team to determine the time needed for a signal to travel between the DSN station and the spacecraft.

NH Flight controlers

New Horizons Flight Control at John Hopkins

"The ranging signal is a special sequence of tones sent to the spacecraft and turned around, or transmitted back,” says Chris DeBoy, New Horizons telecommunications system lead engineer from the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md. “You're hearing those tones as they're received back at Earth, but converted down to a frequency range that the human ear can hear. The ranging technique is just like seeing how much time it takes to hear the echo of your voice reflected off some object to measure how far away you are. Except in this case, the DSN's ‘voice’ is a million or more times higher in frequency than your voice, travels almost a million times faster than the speed of sound, and the round-trip distance is more than 4 billion miles!"

NH Goldstone DSN

NASA Goldstone DSN


NH Canberra DSSN

NASA Canberra DSN

Today, New Horizons is 2.6 billion miles from Earth, between the orbits of Uranus and Neptune, speeding 33,200 miles per hour toward a July 2015 encounter with Pluto and its moons.

New Horizons  Spacecraft Communication Transmission in Audio

These signals were sent to New Horizons on June 29, 2012, from the DSN station in Goldstone, Calif., and returned to the station in Canberra, Australia. Traveling at the speed of light, the signals made the round trip in six hours, 14 minutes and 29 seconds.

Monday, August 26, 2013

New Horizons Mission Update 8/26/13


NH spacecraft at Pluto


Elapsed Mission Time
(1/19/06 19:00:00 UTC)
2776 Days (7.61 yrs.) 07 Hours 18 Minutes

Pluto’s Closest Encounter Operations Begin:
(4/12/15 00:00:00 UTC)
529 Days (1.45 yrs.) 21 Hours 41 Minutes

Pluto Closest Approach:
(7/14/15 11:49:59 UTC)
689 Days (1.89 yrs.) 09 Hours 30 Minutes


New Horizons Position and Course in 3 Dimensions:


NH #1


NH #2


NH #3

New Horizons has just completed a summer of intensive activities and entered hibernation on Aug. 20.  The first of these, conducted in early July, was planned imaging of Pluto and its largest satellite, Charon. As you can see from the image and caption, they accomplished this using the LORRI long-focal length camera. Seeing these images, revealing their target as a true planetary binary, viscerally signaled to them that they were getting close to their destination and the end of the long, 3-billion-plus mile cruise started out on back in January 2006.


Pluto and charon

New Horizons spied fainter Charon aside brighter Pluto in early July using our Long Range Reconnaissance Imager called LORRI.

Then routine parts of the activities included thorough checkouts of all the backup systems (result: they work fine!) and of all our scientific instruments (they work fine too!). The team also updated the onboard fault protection (a.k.a. “autonomy”) software, collected interplanetary cruise science data, and tracked the spacecraft for hundreds of hours to improve their trajectory knowledge. Added to this mix of routine summer wake-up activities for New Horizons were two major activities that had never been performed before.  One unique activity was a complete flight rehearsal of the final week of flyby activities on approach to Pluto, along with the first data transmissions that will follow. This dry run, in which the actual flight sequence for closest encounter was loaded aboard New Horizons and executed exactly as it will be in July 2015, was a major test — and it succeeded brilliantly!  They had planned this test for more than six years and rehearsed it on the ground simulators dozens of times to work out the details and shake out the bugs. The team even ran a 22-hour segment of it on New Horizons in the summer of 2012 as a mini-test.

NH flight operations

Flight controllers in the New Horizons Mission Operations Center at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, keep an eye on the spacecraft’s vitals near the end of the Pluto-encounter rehearsal on July 14.

But actually executing the whole operation this summer was the biggest effort yet, and New Horizons performed outstandingly! Although the final, excruciatingly detailed engineering reviews of the rehearsal won’t come out until early September, the clear success revealed in quick-look data analysis proved to the team that the close encounter sequence and spacecraft will perform as planned. It also yielded a bonus — the measured fuel usage of the close encounter sequence was a little lower than predicted, showing they will have a bit of bonus fuel in the tank after Pluto for the exploration of Kuiper Belt Objects.   And if these activities weren’t enough to signal a fast-approaching encounter, a third event in July put the icing on that cake. That event, two years in the making, was a scientific conference sponsored by the New Horizons project to review everything known about Pluto and its satellites, their origin and evolution, and to hear informed scientific predictions about what New Horizons will find.

Alan Stern the Principal Investigator added, "And, oh yes, one more “finding” that I’m pleased to report (as many at the conference also noted): Throughout the proceedings, scientists of all stripes, including some who don’t regard dwarf planets as planets, repeatedly referred to both Pluto and Charon (though never their small moons) as “planets.” I wasn’t very surprised by this, since I hear it a lot at other conferences too, until one colleague asked me, “Why do you think [names withheld] referred to Pluto and Charon as planets when they didn’t sign the petition rejecting the IAU’s planet definition that excludes dwarf planets?” I was surprised by her answer to her own question: “I think it’s because they subconsciously think of Pluto and Charon as planets, and they can't help but say it in when referring to them.” I just smiled, filing that as a note to relay to you the readers here."

Pluto science conferencees

Participants at the Pluto system science conference gather for a group photo. How many fingers are they holding up?

For now the spacecraft will remain in hibernation almost continuously until June 2014. That hibernation will be interrupted by a short, two-week wakeup in January 2014 for antenna repointing, new command loads and a few routine spacecraft-maintenance activities. Starting in June the team will wake New Horizons for two months, starting with optical navigation (“homing”) activities using the Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (or LORRI) to refine the course to Pluto. Next summer, they will also likely conduct a small course correction using onboard rocket engines to trim up the approach trajectory and closest-approach timing. Then they will conduct another complete checkout of the backup systems and science instruments aboard New Horizons.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

New Horizons Mission Update and Science Conference 7/26/13




Mission Elapsed Time:

(1/19/06 19:00:00 UTC)
1538 Days (4.21 yrs.) 21 Hours 03 Minutes

Pluto Closest Encounter Operations Begin:
(4/12/15 00:00:00)
632 Days (1.73 yrs.)  20 Hours 34 Minutes

Pluto Closest Approach:
(7/14/15 11:49:59)
717 Days (1.96 yrs.) 08 Hours 24 Minutes


Charon Revealed!
New Horizons Camera Spots Pluto’s Largest Moon:

NASA’s Pluto-bound New Horizons spacecraft, using its highest-resolution telescopic camera, has spotted Pluto’s Texas-sized, ice-covered moon Charon for the first time. This represents a major milestone on the spacecraft’s 9½-year journey to conduct the initial reconnaissance of the Pluto system and the Kuiper Belt and, in a sense, begins the mission’s long-range study of the Pluto system.

Pluto and Charon 2

For Photo :Pluto and Charon: New Horizons Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) composite image showing the detection of Pluto’s largest moon, Charon, cleanly separated from Pluto itself. The frame on the left is an average of six different LORRI images, each taken with an exposure time of 0.1 second. The frame to the right is the same composite image but with Pluto and Charon circled; Pluto is the brighter object near the center and Charon is the fainter object near its 11 o’clock position. The circles also denote the predicted locations of the objects, showing that Charon is where the team expects it to be, relative to Pluto. No other Pluto system objects are seen in these images.

The largest of Pluto’s five known moons, Charon orbits about 12,000 miles (more than 19,000 kilometers) away from Pluto itself. As seen from New Horizons, that’s only about 0.01 degrees away. “The image itself might not look very impressive to the untrained eye, but compared to the discovery images of Charon from Earth, these ‘discovery’ images from New Horizons look great!” says New Horizons Project Scientist Hal Weaver, of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, Laurel, Md. “We’re very excited to see Pluto and Charon as separate objects for the first time from New Horizons.”   The spacecraft was still 550 million miles from Pluto – farther than the distance from Earth to Jupiter – when its Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) snapped a total of six images: three on July 1 and three more on July 3. LORRI’s excellent sensitivity and spatial resolution revealed Charon at exactly the predicted offset from Pluto, 35 years after the announcement of Charon’s discovery in 1978 by James Christy of the Naval Observatory.

New Horizons Course and Position in Three Dimensions:


NH #1


NH #2



NH #3


Pluto Science Conference:
July 22-26, 2013


Just two years before New Horizons’ historic flight through the Pluto system, scientists are gathered July 22-26 at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., to discuss the mission and its science plans – as well as make predictions about the science New Horizons will return from the planetary frontier.    By the 1990s, it became clear that Pluto possessed multiple exotic ices on its surface, a complex atmosphere and seasonal cycles, and a large moon suggesting a giant impact origin for the pair. Also in the 1990s it became clear that Pluto was no misfit among the planets, as had long been thought; instead, it was revealed to be the largest and brightest body in the Kuiper Belt—a newly discovered “third zone” of our planetary system. More recently, observations have revealed that Pluto has an unexpectedly rich system of satellites and a surface that changes over time. It has even been speculated that Pluto may possess an internal ocean. For these and other reasons, the 2003 Planetary Decadal Survey ranked a Pluto Kuiper Belt mission as the highest priority mission for NASA’s newly created New Frontiers program.  New Horizons is now 70% of the way along its journey to the Pluto system. It carries a sophisticated package with eight scientific instruments comprised of imagers, UV and IR spectrographs, plasma analyzers, a dust counter, and radio science. This payload was designed to reconnoiter the surfaces, atmospheres, interiors, and space environments of Pluto and its rich system of satellites, shedding light on the abundant new planetary class called ice dwarfs.

Comparative Compositions of Pluto and friends, even long-distant friends :

Bill McKinnon (Washington University)  provided an engaging talk about implications for composition and structure for Pluto and Charon:
Where did Pluto Accrete (i.e. where was Pluto born -in this case distance from the Sun)? Pluto is not alone in its location on that a/e plot for Trans-Neptunian Objects (see previous posting). It’s part of an ensemble of bodies on the 2:3 resonance with Neptune, coined the group “Plutinos.” Was Pluto formed around 33 AU and then migrated outward? What does the Nice I Model  which migrates the giant planets predict for the KBO population? The Nice I Model implies that for Pluto, Pluto could have formed at 20-29 AU (i.e. closer in) to allow it to achieve its high inclination. Then a subsequent model, Nice II, suggests Pluto may have formed in the 15-34 AU range. This is in okay-agreement with accretion models since Pluto, a 1000-km size body, would need 5-10 million years (i.e. within a nebular life) if it were formed in the 20-25 AU range. McKinnon’s Best guess: Pluto formed between 15-30 AU.

How long did accretion take and what are the implications (i.e. how-long did it take for to Pluto grow up)? If we have an accretion time (10’s of million years), there is time enough to form Aluminum-26, which is a form of heat through its decay. Heat then can melt ices and create a differentiated body (i.e., rocky core, icy mantle) and also drive water out. McKinnon’s Best guess: Pluto formed rapid and early.  What are Pluto & Charon made of? They are understood to be made of rock+metal, volatile ices, and organics, with rock+metal more than ice, and ice more than organics. The rock will be some combination of hydrated & anhydrous silicates, sulfides, oxides, carbonates, condrules, CAIs (calcium-aluminum-rich inclusions), CHONPS (carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and sulfur). We don’t really know what sort of composition these KBO volatile ices may have: will they be more like Jupiter Family Comets or Oort Comets? And we know even less about organic components: will the Nitrogen to Carbon ratio tell us whether KBO N2 (nitrogen) comes from organics rather than NH3 (methane)? Solar models (which lock up CO (carbon-monoxide) into carbon) can influence understanding of what rocks in the outer solar system are made of but their models are not in agreement with the best understanding of Pluto/Charon make-up. McKinnon’s Best guess: Rock/Ice nature of Pluto-Charon is 70/30.

Luke Burkhart (Johns Hopkins University) talked about his work on a “Non-linear satellite search around Haumea.” Haumea is another Trans-Neptunian Object (TNO) that has multiple satellite companion, like Pluto. Using HST (10 orbits) they observed the Haumea system and used a method of stacking & shifting to identify satellites. But this method fails to capture objects which are close in, moving fast, and on highly curved orbits. So they developed a new method using a non-linear shift-rate. Their approach, when applied to the Haumea system, had a null-result. However, this approach could be used on images of the Pluto system and other TNOs. Specifically, in answer to a question from the audience, Luke would be eager to use his technique on any of those long-range KBO targets the New Horizons project is currently investigating.


Photo here Family portraits of the eight largest Trans-Neptunian objects (TNOs). Pluto is shown with its 5 companions.


Small is the new big. Pluto’s family of small satellites sparks big discussions and new ideas.

Hal Weaver (APL) gave an introduction to “Pluto’s Small Satellites.” The Pluto system is rich. It has five confirmed moons, Charon (1978), Nix (2005), Hydra (2005), Kerberos (2011, formerly know as P4) and Styx (2012, formerly known as P5).


The Pluto system at a glance. Key top-level parameters of the satellites a=semi major axis (from the Pluto-Charon barycenter/center of mass) in kilometers, P=orbital period in days. The moons appear to be in orbital resonances Hydra:Kerberos:Nix:Styx:Charon = 6:5:4:3:1.

What about their albedo? Albedo is a measurement of a body’s reflectance, a reflection coefficient, where an albedo equal to 1 is “white” and an albedo equal to 0 is essentially “black” (e.g., dirty snowballs like comet nuclei has albedos ~0.04). It should be noted that albedo values can be functions of color (wavelength of light). We know that Pluto has an albedo ~0.5 and Charon has albedo ~0.35. Regolith exchange and dynamics agreements favor albedo ~0.35 for these small satellites, and assuming that density=1 (icy body).  What are implications of these small satellite discoveries? These questions were posed: (1) Pluto system is highly compact and rich, so are there more satellites not yet discovered? (2) Was there a giant impact origin of Pluto System? (3) Could rings also form? (4) Could other large KBOs have multiple satellites? (We know Haumea has 2 companions. Could there be others?).  What role will New Horizons bring? New Horizons will play a key role for small satellites, measuring their size and their shapes. Note: Additional occultation observations from Earth could reveal additional satellites and also provide measurements of their sizes, but not shapes.  New Horizons best spatial resolution of the small satellites is: 0.46 km/pix (Nix), 1.14 km/pix (Hydra), 3.2km/pix (Kerberos), and 3.2 km/pix (Styx). Best estimates right now for the sizes of these bodies, assuming albedo 0.35, are Hydra 50km, Nix 40km, Kerberos 10km, Styx 4 km. That translates to roughly ~44, ~37, ~3, and ~1 pixels across Hydra, Nix, Kerberos, and Styx, respectively.

Scott Kenyon (Harvard SAO, by phone):  “Formation of Pluto’s Low Mass Satellites.” He and his team looked at both the giant impact and capture formation paths for Pluto and Charon. They model a debris disk where viscous diffusion expands the disk, collisions circularize the orbits, particles experience migration, and satellites eventually grow. They found that lower mask disks take longer to reach equilibrium, do produce more satellites, and also produce the smaller satellites. Calculations with large seed planetesimals produce less satellites. Calculations also do predict 1-km size objects in large orbits (orbits beyond Hydra) in a diffuse debris disk.

NH predicted size of pluto system


Peter Thomas (Cornell University) and Keith Noll (NASA GSFC) provided a talk about “Pluto’s Small Satellites: What to Expect, What They Might Tell Us.:”

Small satellites of planets: variety and dynamics role. We have a small selection of satellites of 20-100km range (e.g. Metis, Amalthea, Thebe, Atlas, Prometheus, Pandora, Epimetheus, Janus, Hyperion, Phoebe and asteroids Mathilde, Eros, Ida). Best “comparatives” come from the Saturn family from amazing Cassini images, but these divided into two groups whether they are located within the ring arcs or not. Small satellites are irregular in shape, have high porosity (40-70% void space), weak (tidally fractured), crater morphology varies, regolith depths & distribution over surface, icy & rocky, and some have albedo markings.

Pluto moon simularity with saturn_family-1024x751

Saturn’s moons may be useful “comparatives” for describing Pluto’s small satellites.

Predictions for New Horizons. Peter Thomas is excited to see New Horizons’ images of the small satellites. He predicts they will not look like egg-shaped. Thomas’ Best Guess: A Deimos/Hyperion hybrid morphology.  KBOs and their satellites: variety and collision role. There are three multiple systems known in the Kuiper Belt: Pluto (6 components), Haumea (3 components) and 47171 1999 Tc36 (3 components). There are also 74 binary systems to date. The Pluto system is collisional. Unfortunately most of the KBO binaries have too low angular momentum to imply a collisional origin, but there is a subset of TNO binaries that could be a comparative set. Multiple collision systems in the Kuiper Belt could serve as possible analogs of the Pluto system.

Plutino binaries (above) are also “comparatives” images for describing Pluto’s small satellites. Other comparative bodies, which may have collisional origin could be Quaoar, 1998 SM165, Salacia, and Eris.

Predictions for New Horizons. New Horizons will tell us a lot about KBOs and test open theories about their formation and collisional history.

Mark Showalter (SETI): Talked about his preliminary work on “Chaotic Rotation of Nix & Hydra.” He started the presentation with a light curves for Hydra & Nix made the 2010-2012 HST data sets. They do not follow the expected “double sinusoidal.” When plotting phase angle vs. time, Hydra and Nix do get brighter with lower phase angle and he used this information to normalize their light curves. He found that Nix & Hydra’s brightness's do not correlate with their projected longitude on the sky. They are probably not in synchronous rotation. Also, he is not finding any single rotation period compatible with the data series he has.  His premise is that Nix and Hydra are not following your typical rotation, and are very heavily influenced by the Charon-wobble. Best Guess: Hydra and Nix are in a state of “tumbling.” Bodies that not synchronous have no way to get to synchronous lock.  Until now, Hyperion (one of Saturn’s moons) had been the only chaotic rotator. Not any more! It’s got company!

More predictions about Pluto’s changing atmosphere. And Charon may have a few surprises of her own.

Richard French (Wellesley College): presented a talk on “A Comparison of Models of Tides in Pluto’s Atmosphere and Stellar Occultation Observations:”   We have come to understand that Pluto’s atmosphere is cold & tenuous, has a long radiative time constant, shows weak diurnal variations, indicates seasonal transport of volatiles with long term variations of atmospheric mass, and seems to be convectively stable. Current Pluto general circulation models (GCMs) predict smooth T(P) profiles reveal mean circulation and thermal structure. But there are problems. GCMs predictions (with these smooth T(P) profiles) are inconsistent with stellar occultation data, which imply much more complex T(P) profile. The other challenge to this mystery is that stellar occultations are spatial constrained (i.e., map across a particular lat/long swath of Pluto surface at the time of event). Are there waves in Pluto’s atmosphere? This is one proposition to explain the structures (spikes) seen in the Pluto occultation data. Tidal models they have built make predictions for large scale and small-scale structures. Also they can predict temperature profiles with altitude. Next steps are to apply this model to other occultation geometries. He showed a comparison of a tidal model  against occultation data from an event on Aug 21, 2002 and they showed qualitative agreement. Richard French’s predictions for New Horizons fly-by: When New Horizons provides a true frost pattern, they can input this into their models and generate large-scale and small-scale structures for comparison with actual New Horizons atmosphere measurements. Their tidal models do generate regionally variable, latitude dependent thermal changes.


There was a dual Pluto & Charon occultation event on 4 June 2011. Pluto and Charon each pass in front of the star (at different times). Look at curve shapes. Charon’s curve sharply drops, indicative of no atmosphere, unlike Pluto’s curve, which has not-as-steep ingress/egress that indicates the presence of an atmosphere.

Using the light curve data, Sicardy and his team use a temperature vs. altitude model to fit the light curve depth, width and ingress/egress slope. Then with the temperature, they can derive a pressure. He presented results from the most recent Pluto occultation that was observed May 4, 2013. Good data and good fit.


Pluto, the Orange Frosty, served with a dash of Nitrogen, a pinch of Methane, and smidgen of Carbon Monoxide

Dale Cruikshank (NASA Ames) set the stage with a spectra-rich presentation and gave an overview talk about the “Surface Compositions of Pluto and Charon.” Putting it in context, even 45 years after Pluto was discovered, we did not know much about Pluto only where it was in the sky and its rotation period. That rapidly changed when Dale and colleagues saw strong evidence for solid methane on Pluto in 1976.  Jim Christy discovered the companion moon Charon in 1978, and repeated observations of Pluto and Charon in the 1980s.  Spectroscopy, the technique which spreads light into different wavelengths, has been a powerful diagnostic tool for the identification of molecular species, and therefore tells us the composition of the object. Low-resolution (R~100-500) spectra is sufficient to identify ice-solid features which are characterized by wide features, but higher resolution (R~1,000-10,000s) helps constrain models that determine temperature  also. New Horizons’ LEISA spectrometer covers the 1.25-2.5micron spectral band, with resolution R~240, and a mode of R~550 between 2.10-2.25 microns, making it ideal for identifying solid features. It’s proximity to Pluto during the July 2015 fly-by provides unprecedented spatial resolution. Compared to ground-based & Hubble spectral measurements which can only provide full-disk (~1500km/pix) measurements (because Pluto appears only in a few pixels), New Horizons’ LEISA will provide the true “first look” at the composition of Pluto at 6.0km/pix (global) with some patches at 2.7 km/pixel.

pluto_triton_nir-1024x685reflection and composition

Pluto’s Near Infrared Spectrum is rich in identifiable diagnostic solid materials, Nitrogen (N2), Methane (CH4) and Carbon Monoxide (CO). A comparison with Triton’s spectrum over the same wavelength is shown. Carbon dioxide (CO2) is suspiciously absent from Pluto’s atmosphere.


Pluto’s mid-infrared show a series of methane bands. The gap at 4.2 um is due to CO2 absorption from the Earth’s atmosphere.

Pluto’s UV Spectrum from HST also indirectly supports the presence of organics.


Geometric albedo (measure of reflectivity) of Pluto as a function of wavelength. See how red it looks?

The Surface of Charon. Charon has an intriguing different kind of surface than Pluto. There is water ice, perhaps crystalline ice, and ammonia (NH3) hydrate. But there are no CO, CO2, N2 or CH4, all which are present (or predicted) for Pluto. The nature and source of the ammonia is under debate. Could it come from below the surface and diffuse up or come from cryo-volcanism?



Predictions for New Horizons. It will be hard to find HCN with LEISA due to its spectral resolution as there is a strong methane band nearby. Dale Cruikshank thinks it will be challenging as well to find alkenes.  The mystery of the missing CO2 on Pluto remains. Carbon dioxide is seen on Triton (see above), whose spectra is very similar to Pluto. Dale Cruikshank looks to NASA’s JWST (James Webb Space Telescope, a 6.5 m diameter visible infrared space telescope) as the proper tool to make this detection. New Horizons LEISA instrument has probably too low a resolution to detect CO2 features around 2 microns.

Jason Cook (SwRI) presented a talk on “Observations of Pluto’s Surface and Atmosphere at Low Resolution.” Intrigued by the ethane (C2H6) detection, he got the new idea to look for it this in old data he took in 2004 using the Gemini-N NIRI instrument, with R~700 (low resolution) spectroscopy. In his analysis, he had to include the C2H6 ice contribution to make a fit of ice abundances to the data. He was able to fit multiple methane bands and derive comparable amounts that agrees with other published methane detections at higher resolution.

Bryan Butler (NRAO) talked about “Observations of Pluto, Charon and other TNOs at long wavelengths.” As you go to longer wavelengths, you are less affected by solar reflection. You become dominated by the thermal emission from the body itself. But the emission at these wavelengths will be weak such that building highly sensitivity instruments is key, such as ALMA (in Chile) or updated VLA, called the EVLA (in New Mexico). They have been using ALMA and EVLA to observe Pluto and Charon in 2010-2012 and they had to remove the background contribution as Pluto had been moving through the galactic plane in this period.


The path of Pluto is shown with the green line that appears to make loops. This is the path of Pluto projected against the sub-millimeter. The enhanced horizontal signal is strong sub millimeter thermal emission from the plane of the Milky Way. This caused an undesired extra background signal that needed to be removed from data taken in the 2010-2012 time frame.

What’s Next? They wish to use ALMA to study Pluto & Charon and also attempt to detect Nix & Hydra, if they fall on the larger size. ALMA will be used to observe TNOs and will have the capability to resolve the largest TNOs like Eris (size ~2400km diameter). They predict they can make high-SNR images of Pluto, but barely resolve Charon within a short observation time. To get high-SNR images of Charon would take more observatory time than they think would be awarded for a single object:



Playing Marbles at Pluto. Looking at the Dynamic Dust Environment. Generators, Sweepers, and Sweet-Spots.

Simon Porter (Lowell Observatory) began this part of the session with “Ejecta Transfer within the Pluto System.” He asked, “Where does the short lived dust go?” Having small satellites is not unusual in the solar system. Both Jupiter & Saturn have low number-density rings formed from short-lived dust particles ejected from small satellites.  Their Hypothesis: Dust ejected from the small satellites is swept up by Pluto and Charon. Their Experiment: Simulate dust trajectories in a computer (N-body computation) starting randomly in the system (but constrained within the orbits of the small satellites) and map where they impact Pluto & Charon. Repeat this 10,000 times for a combination of parameters. Their Results: Dust particles do hit all the bodies in the Pluto System. For the Charon impacts, smaller particles survive longer, and those that hit Charon tend to have speeds around 50 m/s (like a fastball pitcher). If a particle were to hit Pluto, it would be happen with speeds in the 50-200 m/s range and occur much quicker (due to the fact that Pluto has a larger gravity mass than Charon). They found that lower speed particles would hit the Pluto’s trailing side, whereas the higher speed particles hit the Pluto’s leading side. They also found a slight northern preference for smaller particles due to radiation pressure. And they made an intriguing observation that the impacts they computed correlate well to bright albedo areas (high reflectivity) on the Pluto surface.

David Kaufman (SwRI) next talked about “Dynamical Simulations of the Debris Disk Dust Environment of the Pluto System.” He was interested in modeling where debris dust would exist in the Pluto System. The motivation was to evaluate the probability of whether New Horizons would encounter a large enough dust particle that could be catastrophic to the spacecraft. He described the dynamics: the Pluto System can be approximated by a “circular restricted three-body (Pluto-Charon-particle) problem,” but it’s far from simply three bodies. There are features such as the Charon Instability Strip, where the moon Charon sweeps away material. The Lagrange points are unstable. And the outer moon can significantly perturb (change) trajectories that cross their orbits. He mentioned that “unusual type orbits” can be sustained by the unique gravity and motion characteristics of the Pluto System. He’s done numerical simulations following the particles, governed by physics principles for the system, over a time period of 500 years, and derived that the debris disk is an expended three-dimensional and stable. The inner debris disk recreated the instability strip.

Silvia Giuliatti Winter (UNESP, Brazil) talked about “The Dynamics of Dust Particles in the Pluto-Charon System.” She is interested in the orbital evolution of small particles ejected form the surface of Nix and Hydra and what happens to them when dust particles from interplanetary meteoroids on these satellites. The goal is to place constraints on predictions for a ring in the Pluto System. They model 1um and 5-10um “dust particles” and track where they travel.

Othon Winter (UNESP Brazil) spoke about “On the Relevance of the Sailboat Island for the New Horizons Mission.” In investigating where particles would find stabile orbits, their modeling predicted a region where there was a cluster of orbits characterized by high eccentricity (e= 0.2 to 0.8) and located around 0.6 Pluto-Charon semi-major axis (i.e. between Pluto and Charon). They nicknamed it “Sailboat Island’ because on a eccentricity vs. distance- from the Pluto plot it looked like a sailboat.

PLuto s-type_orbits

The figure describes a family orbits called S-type that are stable. The plots are in d vs. e. where d, on the x axis is the Pluto-centric semi-major axis (how far from the Pluto barycenter) and e, on the y axis is the eccentricity. The “white” areas are orbit solutions that were found to be stable. Area ‘1’ is the “Sailboat Island” described in the talk. Left are prograde (inclination=0) orbits, right are retrograde (inclination=180 degrees) orbits.

PLuto family_orbits

Example of a particular family of orbits from the “Sailboat Island” parameter space in the full-family of stabile orbits.

Andrew Poppe (UC Berkeley) on “Interplanetary dust influx to the Pluto System: Implications for the Dusty Exosphere and Ring Production.” The three previous talks addressed what happened to particles in the Pluto system with time (i.e., their lifetime, where they impacted objects, what stable orbits they achieved). Here He asked, could the source of the dust come from interplanetary sources? For example, come from the Kuiper Belt being dragged into the Sun.  Because Pluto’s orbit is highly inclined but our Solar Systems Kuiper Belt dust disk is mainly in the ecliptic plane and Pluto periodically passes through the thickness part of the dust disk. EKB = Edgeworth–Kuiper belt


Computation of the dust flux (in particles/m^2/s) for Pluto over one Pluto orbit. The peaks are when Pluto crosses the ecliptic (expected). New Horizon’s Jul 2015 Pluto Fly-by (shown by the red dashed line) will be close to an ecliptic crossing. 

Implications for Rings. They turn their “mass influx models” and do calculations on where rings could form. They predict optical depth tau < 10^-7 (in backscatter). They are working to refine their models to include larger grains.  Open questions. We still do not really have a good handle on the amount of dust generated by “the Kuiper Belt residents”. This is an active area of study.

Henry Throop (SwRI at large) talked about putting “Limits on Pluto’s Ring System from the June 12, 2006, Stellar Occultation.” You can search for rings by direct limited (e.g., using HST) or using stellar occultations. Direct imaging is 2D but at coarse scales whereas stellar occultation give 1 D cuts at higher spatial resolution. He saw that although the Jun 12, 2006 occultation event was 61 seconds in duration, about 3 hours of data was taken over the entire event, so he started to look outside the main events in search for rings that would appear as shallower drops in the light curve.

Plutio ex dust_pluto_disk1-1024x781

Three hours of data taken around the Jun 12, 2006 Pluto occultation even. They did not see any rings or debris with this data set.

Looking back at the timing they realized that Nix was just missed by 1000km or so. So had their been a cosmic coincide that this occultation caught Nix, Nix would have been discovered 10 years earlier.  Implications for New Horizons? This null results combined with other searchers for rings (e.g. recent HST observations) put limits on ring detection, but this dataset is the only data set looking for rings at scales < 1500km, the spatial resolution on HST.  The New Horizons spacecraft on its fly-by through the Pluto system in July 2015 should detect a ring with its Student Dust Counter instrument, if such a ring exists.