New Horizons Homes In On Pluto After Small Course Correction

by Sophia Nasr, @Pharaoness

On June 14th, a 45-second thruster burst corrected the trajectory of New Horizons toward Pluto, placing the spacecraft on an optimal path for its flyby through the Pluto system on July 14. The burst gave New Horizons a 52 cm/s velocity adjustment, and set its close-approach point at about 7750 miles (12,500 km) above the dwarf planet’s surface.

The latest radio-tracking data as well as “range-to-Pluto” measurements helped determine how to proceed with the maneuver. At a distance of 2.95 billion miles (4.75 billion km) from Earth, signals take some 4.5 hours to reach Earth from the spacecraft. So while the maneuver signals were issued on June 12-13, the thruster bursts began at 12:05 AM EDT for 45 seconds. Telemetry confirming that all is well with New Horizons arrived at the New Horizons Mission Operations Center at 6:23 AM EDT. Without the maneuver, New Horizons encounter mission manager Mark Holdridge says that the spacecraft would arrive 470 miles (755 km) off of the desired point above Pluto, as well as 84 seconds earlier. This is the level of precision scientists aim for in missions like this. June 24 poses yet another opportunity for any required adjustments to be applied by the New Horizons team.

Priya Dharmavaram (front) and Tim Miralles at the New Horizons Mission Operations Center monitoring telemetry from New Horizons after the corrections were applied to its trajectory on June 14.

Latest Hazard Search – All Clear

Second and third sets of hazard-search observations (basically data that help reveal any hazards the spacecraft faces in approaching within the orbits of Pluto’s five moons) have been completed using Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) data taken May 29-30 and June 5th. Analyses performed on the data confirmed that the spacecraft is safe for entry into the Pluto system. The analyses included checking for new rings, new moons, or any extra debris that may be hazardous to New Horizons, none of which were found.

The latest hazard search was sensitive enough to be able to detect moons four times dimmer than Pluto’s dimmest moon Styx. Any new undiscovered moons in the system would have to be dimmer. In addition, New Horizons did not detect any rings, indicating that any unknown rings would have to be extremely thin and reflect less than one 5-millionth of incident sunlight.

New Horizons is still about 100 times the Earth-Moon distance from Pluto (22 million miles, or about 34 million km), so it needs to get a little closer to get a better look at the system. A human-made spacecraft is now just several million kilometers away from a Kuiper Belt Object that’s billions of kilometers away!

Preparing For The Next Approach Phase

A final far encounter science phase - Approach Phase 3 (AP3) - happens in the last week of June and lasts 7 days. Approach Phase 3 includes more imaging of the Pluto system to determine required adjustments to the trajectory of New Horizons, as well as detailed mapping of Pluto and its moon Charon with emphasis on the colors of their surfaces, atmospheric behaviors, and surface composition. This is also when a more detailed search for new moons and rings will be performed. Measurements of solar winds, high-energy particles, and concentration of dust particles will continue to be taken by the spacecraft.

Noting that every day data resolution increases as New Horizons gets closer to Pluto, Principal Investigator Alan Stern says “Nothing like this kind of frontier, outer solar system exploration has happened since Voyager 2 was at Neptune way back in 1989. It’s exciting--come and watch as New Horizons turns points of light into a newly explored planetary system and its moons!”

In short—all is clear (so far) for the New Horizons spacecraft Pluto flyby! With increasing resolution in images taken by the spacecraft, we are in for some great discoveries as New Horizons approaches the Pluto system. Is it July 14th yet? I can’t wait!

For the original press release, click here.

But Wait There's More ...

Mission Update: NASA New Horizons Countdown To Pluto

A new Mission Update video was released by the New Horizons team on June 16, 2015.

Sit Back and Get Excited - Cinematic New Horizons Video Teaser

To celebrate the New Horizons mission to Pluto, the National Space Society (NSS) commissioned a short video film, called “New Horizons,” which is being released today. “New Horizons” was directed and produced by Erik Wernquist, whose video “Wanderers,” looking to the future of solar system exploration by humans, created a viral sensation last year. NSS member and New Horizons mission leader Alan Stern served as advisor the video. The video was funded for NSS by contributions to NSS made by New Horizons mission partners Aerojet Rockedyne, Ball Aerospace, Lockheed Martin, and United Launch Alliance.

Sophia Nasr is an astrophysics student at York University. Actively involved in the astronomical community at York U, she is the President of the Astronomy Club at York University and a member of the team at the York University Observatory. She also is involved in university projects, and holds a position in research on dark matter at York U. Holding scientific outreach dear, Sophia is actively involved in social media outlets such as Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus, where she shares with the world her passion for the universe and how it works.

To access the full features of Pluto Safari please download the FREE app for iOS from the Apple App Store or Pluto Safari: New Horizons for Android from Google Play.

Alternatively, if you have SkySafari or Pluto Safari installed you could download the simulation settings file here.