Your Guide To The July 14 Pluto Flyby

by Sophia Nasr, @Pharaoness

Less than 1 million miles from the Pluto system, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft is busy collecting data to help decipher the many mysteries surrounding Pluto and its moons. New Horizons will be making hundreds of observations as it closes in on its target point, some 12,500 km (7800 miles) above the surface of Pluto on July 14. Here is your mission event and media coverage guide for July 13th to July 16th. All times given are Eastern Daylight Time (EDT).

Monday, July 13

Only some data will be sent back to Earth by New Horizons, in case the spacecraft doesn’t survive its close encounter… (Just a precaution, everyone)

10:30 AM – 11:30 PM: Media Briefing: Mission Status and What to Expect; Live on NASA TV

2:30 PM – 5:30 PM: Panels at the John Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (JHUAPL) will be held discussing JHUAPL’s Endeavors in Space, as well as the most recent information about the New Horizons mission. There will be no live TV coverage of these panels, but we can expect that anything interesting will be shared with the public. Follow @skysafariastro for the latest.

Tuesday, July 14

Note: There will be no images received during flyby day as New Horizons focuses on collecting data. There will be some brief telemetry data sent back to Earth at 9:02 PM to indicate the spacecraft survived the encounter.

History will be made today. New Horizons will make its closest approach to Pluto, taking color data (using the Ralph instrument) with a resolution of 500 meters/pixel, and black-and-white images (with the LORRI instrument) with a resolution as high as 100 meters/pixel.

7:30 – 8:00 AM: Media Briefing: Arrival at Pluto, Inside the Pluto System and New Horizons' Perilous Path; Live on NASA TV

Coverage will include a countdown clock, discussions about the latest imagery and data received, and what to expect as New Horizons passes through the Pluto system.

7:49:57 AM: Pluto Flyby The moment we’ve all waited nine years for: the historical flyby of Pluto - a remote outpost in the Kuiper Belt some 33 Astronomical Units (AU) away from the Sun - by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, after an epic journey of 4.8 billion km (3 billion miles) through the solar system.

At closest approach, New Horizons will be just 12,500 km (7800 miles) above Pluto’s surface, and have a velocity of about 13.8 km/s (31,000 miles per hour.) Through most of the close encounter, New Horizons will not be communicating with mission control as it undertakes a wide variety of science missions on the Pluto system. The spacecraft cannot simultaneously gather data and send data back to Earth, so we’ll need to wait until July 15 to get data back taken during the flyby.

8:04 AM: New Horizons makes its closest approach to Pluto’s largest moon Charon, some 28,800 km (17,900 miles) above its surface. The resolution of images of Charon will be about two times less than those of Pluto, since New Horizons will be about twice as far.

8:51 AM: New Horizons fly’s through the shadow cast by Pluto and observe both the Earth and Sun setting, and then rising, through Pluto’s atmosphere. It will watch the light from the Sun and pick up radio waves from transmitters on Earth, making measurements that will reveal the composition, structure, and thermal profile of Pluto’s atmosphere in exquisite detail. The spacecraft will also obtain images of Pluto’s night side, illuminated by Charon, which casts about as much light onto Pluto as a quarter moon on Earth.

10:18 AM: New Horizons will zip into Charon’s shadow and search for any hints of an atmosphere. If an atmosphere is not present, scientists will use this data to get more precise measurements of the moon.

9 AM – 12 PM: Opportunities for media to hold one-on-one interviews with NASA scientists. Group meetings will also be held during this time. While these will not be aired on NASA TV, you can expect a range of news to come from media outlets shortly after this.

8 – 9:15 PM: NASA TV program, Phone Home, broadcast from APL Mission Control

The signal New Horizons is preprogrammed to send back to Earth will arrive at about 9:02 PM. This signal will spark a celebration by mission scientists and enthusiasts who were all anxiously awaiting for news of the spacecraft. This will mark the success of a mission that has been nine years in the making, and in turn, will make history by revealing our first ever detailed look at Pluto.

9:30 PM – 10 PM: Media Briefing: New Horizons Health and Mission Status; Live on NASA TV

Wednesday, July 15

Alan Stern says that "on Wednesday it starts raining data.” Today we receive flyby imagery and data taken by New Horizons on July 14. Data will be sent back to Earth over a period of 16 months, as the transmission rate is low. Maximum rate of transmission is 1 kilobit per second (where 1 kilobit is equal to 125 bytes). This is due to the large distances involved, making the radio signal very weak. Only NASA’s Deep Space Network is capable of detecting New Horizons transmissions.

12 PM – 3 PM: At this time, media will again have the opportunity to hold one-on-one interviews with scientists working on the mission, as well as informal group meetings. Once again, these won’t be aired, but you can be sure the interviews will be posted online by media outlets.

3 – 4 PM: Media Briefing: Seeing Pluto in a New Light; Live on NASA TV.

The first ever up close images of Pluto’s surface will be released, showing the Pluto system in a light never seen before.

Thursday, July 16

Sometime today, the highest resolution images taken of Charon will be sent to Earth, giving us the best look of Pluto’s largest moon we’ve ever seen.

Friday, July 17 –

Additional images will be beamed down to Earth until July 20. There will be a pause in new images for a while, resuming on September 14. The entire flyby data will take 16 months to be fully transmitted back to Earth. We will keep you updated.

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.

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