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Video: What New Horizons might see when it reaches Pluto next July

“Because Pluto has never been visited up-close by a spacecraft from Earth, everything we see will be a first,” said NASA’s Adriana Ocampo.

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft is only a year away from Pluto. Researchers are buzzing with anticipation as NASA prepares to encounter a new world.

The New Horizons spacecraft, one of the fastest ever launched from Earth, left our world in 2006 and is now traveling toward Pluto at nearly one million miles per day. In the past year, scientists have discussed whether the spacecraft might be in danger of collisions with debris in Pluto’s vicinity. They’ve also been searching for a more distant object – an object in the Kuiper Belt – that could become a secondary target for New Horizons after it encounters Pluto. Follow the links below to learn more.

When will New Horizons begin its primary mission?

Will dust and debris create a hazard for the New Horizons spacecraft?

What’s the status of finding a secondary target for New Horizons?

New Horizons spacecraft on July 14, 2014.  Check this link to see where New Horizons is now.

New Horizons spacecraft on July 14, 2014. Check this link to see where New Horizons is now.

Artist’s conception of the dwarf planet Pluto and its largest moon, Charon, and the very distant sun. Image via Lunar and Planetary Institute

When will New Horizons begin its primary mission? New Horizons will pass only 6,000 miles (10,000 km) from Pluto. But NASA said earlier this year that the spacecraft will begin its primary mission in January 2015.

That’s when mission controllers will begin photographing Pluto and its largest moon Charon as distant pinpricks in front of the star background, in order to verify Pluto’s location, which is uncertain by a few thousand kilometers. Spacecraft controllers will use the images to refine Pluto’s distance from New Horizons, and then fire the engines to make any necessary corrections.

By late April 2015, New Horizons will be taking pictures of Pluto that surpass the best images from the Hubble Space Telescope.

NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope took this image of the Pluto system. The image shows Pluto’s system of at least five moons. The green circle marks the most recently discovered moon, designated P5. Scientists expect to find more moons for Pluto when New Horizons gets there. Image via NASA; ESA; M. Showalter, SETI Institute

charon pluto moon

Here is a composite image from New Horizons, acquired in mid-2013, which shows Pluto’s largest moon, Charon, cleanly separated from Pluto itself. An average of six different images, each taken with an exposure time of 0.1 second, were needed to create this image.

Will dust and debris create a hazard for the New Horizons spacecraft, when the craft sweeps past Pluto in 2015? Pluto resides in the icy realms of the solar system and remains very much a mysterious world. Much to the surprise of astronomers, Pluto now has five known moons. Two of them were discovered after New Horizons launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida in January 2006. Astronomers had some fear that debris hitting the moons might have created dangerous dust clouds that in turn would slam into and damage New Horizons as it sweeps past Pluto in 2015, moving at some 30,000 miles per hour (more than 48,000 kilometers per hour). There was some talk of the possibility of course adjustments, which would carry the craft farther from Pluto, at what might be a safer distance.

In 2013, though, of an impact assessment convinced space engineers to stay the course – that is, to stick with the originally planned trajectory – for New Horizons. They say they now believe the danger posed by dust and debris is less than originally feared.

As New Horizons sweeps past Pluto, it’s expected to find more moons for the planet. What more will astronomers find out when the New Horizons probe passes Pluto in 2015? At this point, it’s anyone’s guess, but Pluto fans are sure to enjoy the encounter.

This is an artist's rendering of the New Horizons spacecraft encountering a Kuiper Belt object — a city-sized icy relic left over from the birth of our solar system. The sun, more than 4.1 billion miles (6.7 billion kilometers) away, shines as a bright star embedded in the glow of the zodiacal dust cloud. Jupiter and Neptune are visible as orange and blue

This is an artist’s rendering of the New Horizons spacecraft encountering a Kuiper Belt object — a city-sized icy relic left over from the birth of our solar system. The sun, more than 4.1 billion miles (6.7 billion kilometers) away, shines as a bright star embedded in the glow of the zodiacal dust cloud. Jupiter and Neptune are visible as orange and blue “stars” to the right of the sun. Image via JHUAPL/SwRI

What’s the status of finding a secondary target for New Horizons? In June 2014, the Hubble Space Telescope Time Allocation Committee said it had recommended using the Hubble Space Telescope to search for an object the Pluto-bound NASA New Horizons mission will be able to visit after its flyby of Pluto in July 2015.

Scientists involved in the much-awaited Pluto encounter have wanted to send New Horizons onward to explore an object beyond Pluto in the Kuiper Belt, but, so far, no suitable object has been found.

That’s why the Hubble Space Telescope is being recommended for use in the search. If an object beyond Pluto can be found for New Horizons, it’ll be the most distant object yet visited by an earthly spacecraft.

The planned Hubble search will involve targeting a small area of sky in search of a Kuiper Belt object (KBO) for the outbound spacecraft to visit. The Kuiper Belt is a vast debris field of icy bodies left over from the solar system’s formation 4.6 billion years ago. A Kuiper Belt object has never been seen up close because the belt is so far from the sun, stretching out to a distance of 5 billion miles into a never-before-visited frontier of the solar system.

Bottom line: On July 1-2, 2013, as Pluto reaches its yearly opposition, take a moment to think about the New Horizons spacecraft now en route to the dwarf planet. New Horizons is now past the orbit of Uranus, due to sweep past Pluto in 2015. Recently Pluto scientists decided the danger of collisions with debris in the Pluto system is less than originally feared.

Deborah Byrd

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