New Horizons Sights Tiny Pluto Moon As Spacecraft Races Toward Dwarf Planet

Here’s Hydra! The New Horizons team spotted the tiny moon of Pluto in July, about six months ahead of when they expected to. You can check it out in the images below. The find is exciting in itself, but it also bodes well for the spacecraft’s search for orbital debris to prepare for its close encounter with the system in July 2015.

Most of Pluto’s moons were discovered while New Horizons was under development, or already on its way. Mission planners are thus concerned that there could be moons out there that aren’t discovered yet — moons that could pose a danger to the spacecraft if it ended up in the wrong spot at the wrong time.  That’s why the team is engaging in long-range views to see what else is lurking in Pluto’s vicinity.

“We’re thrilled to see it, because it shows that our satellite-search techniques work, and that our camera is operating superbly. But it’s also exciting just to see a third member of the Pluto system come into view, as proof that we’re almost there,” stated science team member John Spencer, of the Southwest Research Institute.

Watch the difference: Pluto’s moon Hydra stands out in these images taken by the New Horizons spacecraft on July 18 and 20, 2014. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

Hydra was spotted using the spacecraft’s Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI), which took 48 images of 10 seconds apiece between July 18 and July 20. Then the team used half the images, the ones that show Hydra better, to create the images you see above.

The spacecraft was still 267 million miles (430 million kilometers) from Pluto when the images were taken. Another moon discovered around the same time as Hydra — Nix — is still too close to be seen given it’s so close to Pluto, but just wait.

Meanwhile, scientists are busily trying to figure out where to send New Horizons after Pluto. In July, researchers using the Hubble Space Telescope began a full-scale search for a suitable Kuiper Belt Object, which would be one of trillions of icy or rocky objects beyond Neptune’s orbit. Flying past a KBO would provide more clues as to how the Solar System formed, since these objects are considered leftovers of the chunks of matter that came together to form the planets.

Source: Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory

Elizabeth Howell

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.

Recent Posts

Solar Orbiter’s Pictures of the Sun are Every Bit as Dramatic as You Were Hoping

On March 26th, the ESA's Solar Orbiter made its closest approach to the Sun so…

4 hours ago

Update on the Potential May 31st tau Herculid Meteor Storm

If skies are clear, be sure to watch for a potential meteor outburst early next…

9 hours ago

The Moon’s Ancient Volcanoes Could Have Created Ice Sheets Dozens of Meters Thick

Everyone loves looking at the Moon, especially through a telescope. To see those dark and…

23 hours ago

Spacesuits are Leaking Water and NASA is Holding off any Spacewalks Until They can Solve the Problem

NASA's spacesuits are getting old. The extra-vehicular mobility units - EMUs for short - were…

1 day ago

Starliner Launches Successfully, but Two of its Thrusters Failed

Boeing's CST-100 Starliner successfully launched and rendezvoused with the ISS, a crucial step towards performing…

1 day ago

NASA is Building a Mission That Will Refuel and Repair Satellites in Orbit

NASA is planning a mission to demonstrate the ability to repair and upgrade satellites in…

1 day ago