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Where Exactly Is Pluto? Pinpoint Precision Needed For New Horizons Mission

Artist's conception of the Pluto system from the surface of one of its moons. Credit: NASA, ESA and G. Bacon (STScI)

Artist’s conception of the Pluto system from the surface of one of its moons. Credit: NASA, ESA and G. Bacon (STScI)

When you have a spacecraft that takes the better part of a decade to get to its destination, it’s really, really important to make sure you have an accurate fix on where it’s supposed to be. That’s true of the Rosetta spacecraft (which reached its comet today) and also for New Horizons, which will make a flyby past Pluto in 2015.

To make sure New Horizons doesn’t miss its big date, astronomers are using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) to figure out its location and orbit around the Sun. You’d think that we’d know where Pluto is after decades of observations, but because it’s so far away we’ve only tracked it through one-third of its 248-year orbit.

“With these limited observational data, our knowledge of Pluto’s position could be wrong by several thousand kilometers, which compromises our ability to calculate efficient targeting maneuvers for the New Horizons spacecraft,” stated Hal Weaver, a New Horizons project scientist at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland.

Pluto’s moon Charon moves around the dwarf planet in this animated image based on the data from the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA). Credit: B. Saxton (NRAO/AUI/NSF)

As ALMA is a radio/submillimeter telescope, the array picked up Pluto and its largest moon, Charon, by looking at the radio emission from their surfaces. They examined the objects in November 2013, in April 2014 and twice in July. More observations are expected in October.

“By taking multiple observations at different dates, we allow Earth to move along its orbit, offering different vantage points in relation to the Sun,” stated Ed Fomalont, an astronomer with the National Radio Astronomy Observatory who is assigned to ALMA’s operations support facility in Chile. “Astronomers can then better determine Pluto’s distance and orbit.”

New Horizons will reach Pluto in July 2015, and Universe Today is planning a series of articles about the dwarf planet. We’ll need your support to get it done, though. Check out the details here.

Source: National Radio Astronomy Observatory

About 

Elizabeth Howell is the senior writer at Universe Today. She also works for Space.com, Space Exploration Network, the NASA Lunar Science Institute, NASA Astrobiology Magazine and LiveScience, among others. Career highlights include watching three shuttle launches, and going on a two-week simulated Mars expedition in rural Utah. You can follow her on Twitter @howellspace or contact her at her website.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • ken@beyondken.com August 6, 2014, 2:59 PM

    Thankfully, there’s still time to divert New Horizons to Eris.

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