What to expect when you're zipping by Pluto
June 14, 2015 10:11 AM   Subscribe

In about a month, on July 14th at roughly 7:50am EST,the New Horizons spacecraft will make humanity's closest approach to Pluto. This will produce the best images we've ever seen of the dwarf planet, its odd system and bizarre collection of moons. In anticipation of this historic event, Emily Lakdawalla of Planetary.org has written a blog post describing exactly what and when to expect photos and other science data from the encounter.

Because New Horizons can't communicate with Earth and take photos at the same time (keeping things simple for long deep space travel), we won't be getting any information for the 24 hours surrounding that flyby. We will have some photos and data from Monday June 13, though it won't be high resolution. On Tuesday night, New Horizons will send a short message, taking the 4 and half hours to reach Earth, essentially saying "Survived encounter, will talk to you tomorrow". Then on Thursday and Friday we'll get a series of "First Look" data, along with more data downloads through the weekend pf July 20th. There's pause until September 14, when all the images will be downloaded, but with lossy compression and it'll take 10 weeks to receive all that data. Finally in mid-November, all of the data and images will be downloaded again, but without compression. This'll take about a year.


Why isn't New Horizons going to orbit Pluto? Because in order to get there in a reasonable amount of time for us humans, we launched the probe at ridiculous speed. We don't have rockets powerful enough to send New Horizons to Pluto in a short amount of time and have enough fuel to slow down enough to achieve orbit. But after zipping by Pluto at 14 miles a second, it'll move on to explore the Kuiper belt.
posted by Brandon Blatcher (27 comments total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
 
Can't wait!
posted by fairmettle at 10:13 AM on June 14, 2015


This was the subject of one my favorite recent XKCD comics. (Don't miss the mouseover tooltip.)
posted by BigHeartedGuy at 10:15 AM on June 14, 2015 [1 favorite]


What I love about gravity-assisted spacecraft is that you just know there was an engineer that looked at children playing Crack the Whip and went, "Heyyyy..."
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 10:28 AM on June 14, 2015


The best images we will get pre-flyby will be transmitted on Tuesday 13-July-0215 3:15 UTC, this is E-Health 1, the last imager test. It'll be a full disk image of Pluto, ~620 pixels across. Fail Safe D, at 16:25 UTC, will be two images, a full disk image of Charon, ~170 pixels across, and color picture of Pluto and Charon, ~86 and ~43 pixels pixels respectively. Fail Safe A-C are other instrument data, but not images.

These are just in case the probe doesn't survive flyby.

Wednesday, we get the First Look images.
posted by eriko at 10:33 AM on June 14, 2015 [2 favorites]


Cool Papa Bell: The BBC did a recent documentary, "Voyager: To The Final Frontier" which covered the discovery and development of gravity-assist trajectories and the Grand Tour in some detail. I can't find the complete doc online, but fortuitously the section that covers all this is on Youtube in its entirety.
posted by Devonian at 10:45 AM on June 14, 2015 [4 favorites]


New Horizons should leave our solar system around 2047.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 10:48 AM on June 14, 2015


It's moons will be more interesting, I think. Two objects grabbed by a planetoid, probably from two different places of the Oort.
posted by Mblue at 11:07 AM on June 14, 2015


Because New Horizons can't communicate with Earth and take photos at the same time (keeping things simple for long deep space travel), we won't be getting any information for the 24 hours surrounding that flyby. We will have some photos and data from Monday June 13, though it won't be high resolution. On Tuesday night, New Horizons will send a short message, taking the 4 and half hours to reach Earth, essentially saying "Survived encounter, will talk to you tomorrow".

That's more than enough time and opportunity for the Fungi from Yuggoth to put their eldritch plans into action. On the plus side, maybe we'll get a nice shot of their fungoid gardens and windowless cities.
posted by along came the crocodile at 11:22 AM on June 14, 2015


New Horizons should leave our solar system around 2047.

Well, at least for the first time. As we know, Voyager 1 has left the solar system 22 times so far. Hopefully New Horizons will have a similarly fruitful mission.
posted by officer_fred at 11:31 AM on June 14, 2015 [3 favorites]


Some of the New Horizons team have been working on this for twenty years. This freshly released NASA documentary follows the mission's history. I have a huge amount of respect for everyone involved.

If you're running Windows, you can download JPL's mission simulator that lets you fool around with New Horizons and a bunch of other current programmes, fast-forwarding, rewinding, seeing what the instruments see, etc. The physical data also seems to be getting updates from the images New Horizons is transmitting back to Earth. I've never seen anything like it.
posted by topynate at 11:33 AM on June 14, 2015 [3 favorites]


Some of the New Horizons team have been working on this for twenty years.

Think about it. It launched in 2006. You had to design and build it. But the guys who did worked originally on the Pluto Fast Flyby and Pluto Kuiper Express missions, both of which were cancelled in 2000 and 2001, respectively. They were reborn as New Horizons.
posted by eriko at 11:43 AM on June 14, 2015


If the spacecraft listens closely, it will hear the demoted former planet doing a rather good imitation of Rodney Dangerfield "No respect, I tell you, I don't get no respect. The Europeans go way out of the way to land on a comet and the Americans won't even slow down on the way past. No respect I tell ya."
posted by three blind mice at 12:08 PM on June 14, 2015 [6 favorites]


I would be really interested in knowing what the people supervising this mission said when the astronomers had a conference and decided Pluto no longer qualifies as a planet. Were there any grunts in the early meetings who proffered the suggestion that by the time we get there Pluto might not be a planet?
posted by bukvich at 2:06 PM on June 14, 2015


"We built a very light spacecraft and bought a very large rocket."

My kind of engineering.

(Well, "We built an enormous spacecraft and bought a rocket the size of Maine" also works, but... eh, budgets.)
posted by Devonian at 3:02 PM on June 14, 2015 [2 favorites]


Cool Papa Bell: "you just know there was an engineer that looked at children playing Crack the Whip and went, "Heyyyy...""

I pretty much assume this is where physicists come from in general.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:15 PM on June 14, 2015


Bukvich: "I'm embarrassed for astronomy," said Alan Stern, leader of NASA's New Horizon's mission to Pluto and a scientist at the Southwest Research Institute. "Less than 5 percent of the world's astronomers voted."
posted by Rob Rockets at 6:25 PM on June 14, 2015 [1 favorite]


Yeah, science isn't determined by democracy. How would you even get a vote from every astronomer? Who even qualifies?
posted by Mitrovarr at 7:22 PM on June 14, 2015 [2 favorites]


If Earth were in Pluto's orbit, the IAU would not classify it as a planet. Partly that's because they'd be frozen solid, but that aside, the Earth is not massive enough to clear its orbit at that distance from the Sun.

You can scroll back through Alan Stern's twitter, searching for "planet", and see how often this issue happens to come up. (All the time.)

This team have played the long game. So the IAU voted on what the definition of "planet" is? Big deal. They knew all along that if they kept hope alive, when New Horizons finally made it to Pluto the general public would come round. I mean, an atmosphere? Five moons? (At least.) There may be clouds. Clouds! It's a planet.
posted by topynate at 7:41 PM on June 14, 2015 [3 favorites]


Smithsonian Magazine had a recent write-up about Stern.
posted by Ray Walston, Luck Dragon at 11:57 PM on June 14, 2015


Alan Stern talked at the most recent Friday Colloquium at the Applied Physics Lab. He was super nice, and super enthusiastic. Among other things, he talked about NH carrying Clyde Tombaugh's ashes, and recognized a member of APL's NH team who had passed away just recently.

He emphasized that this is a mission of discovery, that it's the first to explore an object in the "third zone" of the Solar System. He showed a blob of maybe a couple dozen pixels, saying that until this month, this was the best picture any one had ever taken of Pluto.

There are some good videos about NH here;

http://pluto.jhuapl.edu/Multimedia/index.php

Also some here : https://www.youtube.com/user/NASANewHorizons

There is also a New Horizons app for iOS and Android.
posted by newdaddy at 7:21 AM on June 15, 2015 [1 favorite]


I heart New Horizons.
posted by agregoli at 9:31 AM on June 15, 2015


As frustrating as it is to wait so long for the pictures, there's some good news:

We have the technology to send high-res images from Pluto. When I think about this, it really does boggle my mind a bit. We have the precision to not only send something by a chunk of rock that is 4.67 billion miles away, but we have the technology to send large quantities of information back such that we receive it in high definition over that distance and capture it with a 70-meter dish. For awhile I couldn't figure out that running my microwave was making my internet cut out, and we somehow navigate a distance over ten years at 36,000 miles per hour, and we can get information back. It's awesome.

I might be a simple man, but I never fail to get impressed by the immensity of space and how we manage to get stuff done in our spec of the universe.
posted by SpacemanStix at 2:46 PM on June 15, 2015 [3 favorites]


When my son was 4 we put his and my name on the New Horizons CD that was placed on the craft. Now he's 14 and it's out there on the edge of the solar system near Pluto. I'm so excited by this!
posted by drnick at 7:30 PM on June 15, 2015 [6 favorites]


New Horizons update ... on Imgur. Hail science!
posted by filthy light thief at 8:10 PM on July 11, 2015 [2 favorites]


Pluto minus one day: Very first New Horizons Pluto encounter science results - Emily Lakdawalla on Planetary, summarizing New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern's comments from a press briefing this morning.
posted by filthy light thief at 1:45 PM on July 13, 2015


We have the technology to send high-res images from Pluto

Even better: We had the technology to send high-res images from Pluto a decade ago. It just took that long for the camera to get delivered.

As of this writing (4PM CDT 13-Jul-2015) New Horizons is ~458,000 miles away from Pluto, ~15 hours from closest approach, traveling at 30,834mph.
posted by eriko at 1:56 PM on July 13, 2015


Assuming no issues, the last of the Fail Safe downlinks should be in hand. Fail Safe D would have finished about 1224 EDT today. There will be one more pre-flyby image, the E-Health 1 downlink occurs tonight at 2315 EDT, that's a short downlink, about 1 hour. After that, it's all science for New Horizons through the flyby until it phones home or fails.

Assuming all goes well, the Phone Home telemetry datalink will come down about 2109 EDT. NASA TV has a live broadcast starting at 2000 EDT. There will be no science data, this is merely a "I survived the flyby" downlink of about 20 minutes. Then, back to science in the departure phase.

The First Look images will then downlink after that. Here's the schedule. Times are expected finish of downlink, there will be some time to get those images out to the public, but you can expect NASA to move those out as fast as possible.

First Look A: 15-July 0700 EDT Charon, Pluto, Hydra
First Look B: 15-July 1525 EDT Nix, Hi-res Pluto Mosaic
First Look C: Non-image data
First Look D: 16-July 0323 EDT Hi-res Charon Mosiac
First Look E: 17-July 1232 EDT Color Pluto & Charon

Then the High Priority dataset transmissions.

High Pri A: 17-July 1232 EDT Hydra Highest resolution, Pluto
High Pri B: 18-July 0629 EDT Pluto Departure Crescent, Color Nix
High Pri C-F are non-image data
High Pri G: 20-July 1220 EDT 4 frame Hi-res Pluto mosaic.

And that will be it until September 14 when the entire compressed dataset will start to be sent. During August, a decision on the extended KBO mission will be made and, if needed, the first KBO trajectory burn will happen. After the compressed dataset is downloaded, the uncompressed download will start, it will take a full year for that to finish.
posted by eriko at 2:20 PM on July 13, 2015 [2 favorites]


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