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Thursday, 13 November 2014

New Horizons

Now that Rosetta is old news, it's time to look to other missions. Actually, Rosetta and its lander Philae, along with the rest of the team, are doing a fantastic job after landing on the comet for the first time in history. Although, since Philae's harpoons failed to deploy, it bounced after touchdown, and teams are still working to localize it.

Just 1 day after following this news quite intensely, I was reminded of the New Horizons mission. Launched in 2006, New Horizons plans to study Pluto, up close and personal for the first time, and whatever side of the "Is Pluto a planet?"debate you are on, this mission should excite you!

What is it?

According to Wikipedia, New Horizons is a NASA probe to study Pluto, its moons, and some Kuiper Belt objects. 

It had a launch mass of 478 kg, (1 054 lb), is "comparable in size and shape to a grand piano" and operates with only 228 watts of power! 

This is pretty remarkable since this deep space probe not only needs to communicate with Earth, but also studies the cosmos using a long range imager, remote sensing equipment, a plasma/high energy spectrometer, a radio science experiment, and a dust counter. This last one may sound odd, but by understanding the dust which exists in interplanetary space, astronomers will be better able to account for the dust in their images and get clearer images of far away objects.

As I was refreshing my knowledge of this mission, I recalled having seeing this image before. We used it during an exam at the International Space University to identify the components used on the spacecraft. Clearly, you can see the large antenna, which is used to communicate with Earth via the Deep Space Network (3 large antennas used on Earth to communicate with deep-space probes). You can also see thrusters on the right side, radiator panels, and the radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG) on the left. The RTG is the main power source for the probe and it works by converting the heat produced by radioactive decay into electricity. You can also see a panel open on the right side. This is likely the lid for the remote sensing equipment. This kind of equipment can be very sensitive to heat and so the lid protects it until it is ready; yes, essentially it is a lens cap, but for instruments looking not in the visible, but radar or ultraviolet parts of the spectrum.

Why is it important?

Pluto was discovered in 1930 and promptly declared to be a planet. However, after 80 years of observation, Pluto has not appeared any more clearly than a blurry dot among many. It has, however, been observed well enough recently for the International Astronautical Union (IAU) to formally define the requirements of being a planet, and promptly declare Pluto to be a "dwarf planet" in 2006.

I know that this declaration bothers a lot of people, people who saw it as some sort of cosmological demotion. However, Pluto helped force the IAU (comprised of the world's leading scientists) to formally define what a planet was, and Pluto is just too special to be narrowed down into that definition. Its orbit is erratic, and its mass is far less than many other objects in our solar system.

So, why is New Horizons important? Well, as mentioned, it will pass closer to Pluto than anything before and will, hopefully, provide new and exciting images of the dwarf planet's surface, atmosphere, and its moons. We will finally fill in the blank that has been Pluto and see images from the edge of our solar system. It will literally be exploring the wild frontier of space!

How can you get involved?

Well, it is a little early to get too excited. The mission has passed by Jupiter already, studying the gas giant and its moons, and promptly went back to sleep.

AU = Astronomical Unit, average Earth-Sun distance. 1 AU = 150 000 000 km
In an effort to conserve power, New Horizons entered its 3rd hibernation mode in 2013, and will wake up next month, December 6th, 2014 on its way to Pluto. It is expected to pass by the mysterious dwarf planet in July of 2015, so, as I said, we're a little early.

However, more details of the mission can be found at the links below. I am not sure where I will be next July, but you can rest assured that I will be following, and tweeting, the progress of New Horizons!

Thanks for reading, for more information, check these out!

New Horizons mission page
Twitter page
Facebook page

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