Videos simulate Pluto, Charon flyby; follow up mission proposed
NASA’s New Horizons team released new movies simulating the spacecraft’s 2015 flight over Pluto and its large moon Charon to mark the sixth anniversary of the encounter on July 14, 2015.
The 1-minute, 15-second Pluto video and the 30-second Charon video are composed of high-resolution images captured in black-and-white by the spacecraft’s Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) and in color by its Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC).
All images were taken as the probe sped by the Pluto system at over 30,000 miles per hour.
Pluto’s simulated flight, which depicts features as small as 230 feet (70 meters) wide, begins over Sputnik Planitia, the impact basin that makes up the left side of the planet’s iconic heart feature, composed of floating nitrogen ice glaciers.
Covering a distance of 300 miles (500 km), it traverses a region dotted with small pits, then ends over a rugged terrain, where there is a distance of over two miles (3.5 km) between the highest and lowest points.
Although most of the movie is in black-and-white, MVIC color images are added toward the end to emphasize the reddish color of the rugged region.
Charon’s flight simulation, which shows features as small as 450 feet (140 meters) wide, begins in Vulcan Planitia, an icy volcanic region with mountains whose heights range from 1.5 to 2.5 miles (3-4 km). It also covers a distance of 300 miles (500 km), revealing scattered impact craters before ending in an area of broken, uneven planes.
“These new high-resolution flyover videos are incredible. They aren’t just scientifically valuable, but they are also engaging, which is why we want to share them with the public. Enjoy flying over a planet named Pluto and its giant moon Charon, both more than three billion miles from Earth,” said mission principal investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colorado.
Nearly three-and-a-half years after the Pluto flyby, New Horizons encountered a second target, the much smaller Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) Arrokoth, located 4.6 billion miles (7.4 billion km) from Earth.
Arrokoth is far enough away that the stars New Horizons observed in its vicinity looked different than they do from Earth.
Mission scientists have written a comprehensive textbook, The Pluto System After New Horizons, which has an August 10 publication date.
The New Horizons team, which is searching for a third flyby target, on July 25 announced the uploading of new flight software onto the spacecraft from a distance of more than five million miles (more than eight million km).
Video courtesy of the Lunar and Planetary Institute
Video courtesy of the Lunar and Planetary Institute
Follow up mission to Pluto?
Some researchers are already exploring a follow up mission to the Pluto system. Late last year, a proposed mission named Persephone was submitted to NASA. This spacecraft would orbit Pluto and Charon for three years, using high-resolution cameras to map both worlds.
Like New Horizons, Persephone would be nuclear powered with five radioisotope thermoelectric generators. Key goals of the mission include determining whether Pluto has a subsurface liquid ocean and gaining deeper insight into both the formation and evolution of its surface and atmosphere.
To actually move forward, Persephone would have to be selected by NASA’s National Research Council‘s decadal survey, which every 10 years chooses planetary missions for the next decade. Persephone principal investigator Carly Howett, also of SwRI, emphasized the mission could provide further insight into the formation of the solar system.
The cost for the proposed mission is estimated to be $3 billion.
One of the drivers supporting a return to Pluto is the surprise scientists experienced when New Horizons revealed Pluto’s active geology and varied terrains. Many envision more surprises waiting, especially on the non-encounter hemisphere, which was imaged only in low resolution.
“I think my prediction was, this is going to be a cold and dead and cratered surface because it’s so far out — it’s pretty small. And that’s what we expect from small, icy bodies,” said Persephone geologist Jani Radebaugh of Brigham Young University (BYU). “But I was completely amazed at what I saw. Instead, there was just a real diversity of landscapes and processes.”
While Pluto has an icy outer shell, its composition is estimated to be 70 percent rock.
Laurel Kornfeld is an amateur astronomer and freelance writer from Highland Park, NJ, who enjoys writing about astronomy and planetary science. She studied journalism at Douglass College, Rutgers University, and earned a Graduate Certificate of Science from Swinburne University’s Astronomy Online program. Her writings have been published online in The Atlantic, Astronomy magazine’s guest blog section, the UK Space Conference, the 2009 IAU General Assembly newspaper, The Space Reporter, and newsletters of various astronomy clubs. She is a member of the Cranford, NJ-based Amateur Astronomers, Inc. Especially interested in the outer solar system, Laurel gave a brief presentation at the 2008 Great Planet Debate held at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, MD.
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