On January 19, 2006, the New Horizons probe departed Cape Canaveral. The probe, similar in size to a grand piano, contains millions of dollars in scientific equipment. Its mission was simple – to gather and transmit qualitative and quantitative data on both the Kuiper Belt and Pluto. Using this data, scientists can further understand the formation and development of the early solar system.
In February of 2007, New Horizons approached Jupiter, using the planet’s gravitational pull to speed up its journey. This technique, dubbed “gravity boost,” allowed the probe to reach its destination in less than 10 years. Its proximity to Jupiter also allowed for data collection of the gas giant. Following the gravity boost, the New Horizons probe slipped into hibernation.
Seven years later, New Horizons awoke from its sleep. Visual contact with Pluto was still a few months away, but scientists needed to prepare the probe for data collection. Spectrometers, telescopes, and various detectors were all calibrated in preparation for the probe’s approach.
Leading up to its closest approach to Pluto, the probe began to take photographs of the dwarf planet and its five satellites. The images were initially grainy and unclear. As New Horizons continued to advance towards Pluto, however, stunning imagery and topographical information were relayed back to Earth. On July 14, 2015, the New Horizons probe flew within 12,500 kilometers from the surface of the planet, its closest approach. Following this fly-by, the probe continued to gather valuable data, such as the composition of Pluto’s atmosphere. Over the next sixteen months, the probe will send nearly 64 Gigabits of data back to NASA.
Among these images are snapshots of craters, mountains, and glaciers. Scientists, using these images, have mapped much of Pluto, and are working to understand the geological processes that have shaped Pluto’s geography. Pluto is also observed to have an extensive layer of haze; knowing the composition of this atmosphere can reveal much about Pluto’s beginnings. Moreover, understanding of the composition and movement of Pluto’s crust can be used to predict future activity. Four previously undiscovered satellites were also spotted during New Horizons’ fly-by of Pluto. Needless to say, extensive analysis of data is needed before Pluto’s history can be understood.
So, what now? The New Horizons mission is currently waiting for an extension. With NASA’s approval, the probe can repeat the Pluto-imaging process with Kuiper Belt Objects beyond the dwarf planet, a feat that may unlock greater understanding of space and our solar system.
December 27th, 2015
Author: Frank Jia
Editor: T.L. Bloomfield