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New Horizons' Historic Rendezvous with Pluto

This article appeared in the July 17, 2015 edition of the Davis Enterprise.

 

By Vinita Domier

Special to the Enterprise

 

After traversing the vastness of space for 3.6 billion miles in a mere nine and a half years, NASA's New Horizons achieved the unique distinction of being the first spacecraft to rendezvous with the elusive and far-away solar system body Pluto for an unprecedented fly-by on the morning of July 14, 2015.

 

Since January 2015, the robotic probe has been imaging Pluto and its five moons as it swiftly closed in on these distant icy solar system bodies, culminating on July 14 at 4:50am PDT when it came within a mere 7,750 miles at closest approach to Pluto, and to its biggest moon Charon about 10 minutes later. Thirteen hours later, the spacecraft’s message confirming this historic rendezvous was received on Earth.

 

The New Horizons probe, weighing only about 1000 pounds and containing 7 on-board scientific instruments to study Pluto and its moons’ atmosphere and surface features, is the fastest spacecraft ever launched, traveling at an incredible speed of 1 million miles per day to reach its destination in less than 10 years. At the encounter with Pluto on July 14, the probe was at such a vast distance from Earth that one-way communications between the spacecraft and its operators on Earth took 4.5 hours.

 

When the New Horizons spacecraft was launched on January 19, 2006, Pluto was known as the ninth and most distant planet in our solar system. It had been discovered in 1930, and was known to be an icy world taking 248 Earth years to orbit the Sun in a highly eccentric orbit, varying from 30 AU to 49 AU. However, in August 2006, Pluto was designated a ‘dwarf planet’ when the International Astronomical Society revised the definition of the astronomical term ‘planet’.

 

Pluto is the largest known dwarf planet found in the region of space extending beyond the orbit of planet Neptune, known as the Kuiper Belt. This doughnut-shaped solar system region, between 30 AU and 50 AU from the Sun, contains hundreds of thousands of icy bodies bigger than 100 kilometers in diameter. New Horizons spacecraft will continue its journey delving deeper into the Kuiper Belt region of space, and is scheduled to fly by one of these as yet unselected Kuiper Belt objects around 2019.

 

Pluto is actually the second dwarf planet to be visited by a robotic space probe, though the first one in the Kuiper Belt region of space. The NASA spacecraft Dawn, launched in September 2007, rendezvoused with dwarf planet Ceres on March 6, 2015, after visiting the large asteroid Vesta in July 2011. Ceres is located in the Asteroid Belt region of space that extends between the orbits of planets Mars and Jupiter.

 

You can check out some of the images of Pluto at
http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/07/15/science/space/new-horizons-pluto-flyby-photos.html?emc=edit_na_20150715&nlid=51866088&ref=cta&_r=0.

 

Please join the Davis Astronomy Club meeting at Explorit Science Center (3141 5th St, Davis) on Saturday, July 18, 2015, starting at 7:30pm when we will discuss New Horizons' historic rendezvous with the dwarf planet Pluto. Everyone is invited to the free presentation indoors followed by a star party outdoors. There is no cost to becoming a member of the Davis Astronomy Club.

 

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