Charon Suffered Surprisingly Titanic Upheavals in Fresh Imagery from New Horizons

Charon in Enhanced Color with Grand Canyon
NASA’s New Horizons captured this high-resolution enhanced color view of Charon and its Grand Canyon just before closest approach on July 14, 2015. The image combines blue, red and infrared images taken by the spacecraft’s Ralph/Multispectral Visual Imaging Camera (MVIC); the colors are processed to best highlight the variation of surface properties across Charon. Charon’s color palette is not as diverse as Pluto’s; most striking is the reddish north (top) polar region, informally named Mordor Macula. Charon is 754 miles (1,214 kilometers) across; this image resolves details as small as 1.8 miles (2.9 kilometers). Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI[/caption]

Charon suffered such a surprisingly violent past of titanic upheavals that they created a humongous canyon stretching across the entire face of Pluto’s largest moon – as revealed in a fresh batch of images just returned from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft.

We have been agog in amazement these past few weeks as New Horizons focused its attention on transmitting astounding high resolution imagery and data of Pluto, captured during mankind’s history making first encounter with our solar systems last unexplored planet on July 14, 2015, at a distance of 7,750 miles (12,500 kilometers).

Now after tantalizing hints we see that Charon, Pluto’s largest moon, did
not disappoint and is no less exciting than the “snakeskin texture mountains” of Pluto revealed only last week.

“You’ll love this,” said New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colorado, in a blog posting.

Indeed researches say Charon’s tortured landscape of otherworldly canyons, mountains and more far exceeds scientists preconceived notions of a “monotonous, crater-battered world; instead, they’re finding a landscape covered with mountains, canyons, landslides, surface-color variations and more.”

“We thought the probability of seeing such interesting features on this satellite of a world at the far edge of our solar system was low,” said Ross Beyer, an affiliate of the New Horizons Geology, Geophysics and Imaging (GGI) team from the SETI Institute and NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, in a statement.

“But I couldn’t be more delighted with what we see.”

Measuring 754 miles (1,214 kilometers) across, Charon is half the diameter of Pluto and forms a double planet system. Charon also ranks as the largest satellite relative to its planet in the solar system. By comparison, Earth’s moon is one quarter the size of our home planet.

The new images of the Pluto-facing hemisphere of Charon were taken by New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) and the Ralph/Multispectral Visual Imaging Camera (MVIC) during the July 14 flyby and downlinked over about the past week and a half.

They reveal details of a belt of fractures and canyons just north of the moon’s equator.

High-resolution images of Charon were taken by the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager on NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, shortly before closest approach on July 14, 2015, and overlaid with enhanced color from the Ralph/Multispectral Visual Imaging Camera (MVIC). Charon’s cratered uplands at the top are broken by series of canyons, and replaced on the bottom by the rolling plains of the informally named Vulcan Planum. The scene covers Charon’s width of 754 miles (1,214 kilometers) and resolves details as small as 0.5 miles (0.8 kilometers).  Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI
High-resolution images of Charon were taken by the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager on NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, shortly before closest approach on July 14, 2015, and overlaid with enhanced color from the Ralph/Multispectral Visual Imaging Camera (MVIC). Charon’s cratered uplands at the top are broken by series of canyons, and replaced on the bottom by the rolling plains of the informally named Vulcan Planum. The scene covers Charon’s width of 754 miles (1,214 kilometers) and resolves details as small as 0.5 miles (0.8 kilometers). Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

The “Grand Canyon of Charon” stretches more than 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) across the entire face of Charon visible in the new images. Furthermore the deep canyon probably extends onto the far side of Pluto and hearkens back to Valles Marineris on Mars.

“It looks like the entire crust of Charon has been split open,” said John Spencer, deputy lead for GGI at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, in a statement.

“With respect to its size relative to Charon, this feature is much like the vast Valles Marineris canyon system on Mars.”

Charon’s “Grand Canyon” is four times as long as the Grand Canyon of the United States. Plus its twice as deep in places. “These faults and canyons indicate a titanic geological upheaval in Charon’s past,” according to the New Horizons team.

This composite of enhanced color images of Pluto (lower right) and Charon (upper left), was taken by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft as it passed through the Pluto system on July 14, 2015. This image highlights the striking differences between Pluto and Charon. The color and brightness of both Pluto and Charon have been processed identically to allow direct comparison of their surface properties, and to highlight the similarity between Charon’s polar red terrain and Pluto’s equatorial red terrain. Pluto and Charon are shown with approximately correct relative sizes, but their true separation is not to scale. The image combines blue, red and infrared images taken by the spacecraft’s Ralph/Multispectral Visual Imaging Camera (MVIC).  Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI
This composite of enhanced color images of Pluto (lower right) and Charon (upper left), was taken by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft as it passed through the Pluto system on July 14, 2015. This image highlights the striking differences between Pluto and Charon. The color and brightness of both Pluto and Charon have been processed identically to allow direct comparison of their surface properties, and to highlight the similarity between Charon’s polar red terrain and Pluto’s equatorial red terrain. Pluto and Charon are shown with approximately correct relative sizes, but their true separation is not to scale. The image combines blue, red and infrared images taken by the spacecraft’s Ralph/Multispectral Visual Imaging Camera (MVIC). Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

Another intriguing finding is the area south of the canyon is much smoother, with fewer craters and may have been resurfaced by a type of “cryovolcanism.”

The southern plains are informally named “Vulcan Planum” and may be much younger.

“The team is discussing the possibility that an internal water ocean could have frozen long ago, and the resulting volume change could have led to Charon cracking open, allowing water-based lavas to reach the surface at that time,” said Paul Schenk, a New Horizons team member from the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston.

The piano shaped probe gathered about 50 gigabits of data as it hurtled past Pluto, its largest moon Charon and four smaller moons.

Barely 5 or 6 percent of the 50 gigabits of data captured by New Horizons has been received by ground stations back on Earth due to the slow downlink rate.

Stern says it will take about a year for all the data to get back. Many astounding discoveries await.

“I predict Charon’s story will become even more amazing!” said mission Project Scientist Hal Weaver, of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland.

New Horizons science team co-investigator John Spencer examines print of the newest Pluto image taken on July 13, 2015 after the successful Pluto flyby. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
New Horizons science team co-investigator John Spencer examines print of the newest Pluto image taken on July 13, 2015 after the successful Pluto flyby. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

This new global mosaic view of Pluto was created from the latest high-resolution images to be downlinked from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft and released on Sept. 11, 2015.   The images were taken as New Horizons flew past Pluto on July 14, 2015, from a distance of 50,000 miles (80,000 kilometers).  This new mosaic was stitched from over two dozen raw images captured by the LORRI imager and colorized.  Annotated with informal place names.  Credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
This new global mosaic view of Pluto was created from the latest high-resolution images to be downlinked from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft and released on Sept. 11, 2015. The images were taken as New Horizons flew past Pluto on July 14, 2015, from a distance of 50,000 miles (80,000 kilometers). This new mosaic was stitched from over two dozen raw images captured by the LORRI imager and colorized. Annotated with informal place names. Credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

See Pluto’s Icy Flow Plains and Mountains Revealed in Highest Resolution Flyover Mosaic and Movie

Highest resolution mosaic of ‘Tombaugh Regio’ shows the heart-shaped region on Pluto focusing on ice flows and plains of ‘Sputnik Planum’ at top and icy mountain ranges of ‘Hillary Montes’ and ‘Norgay Montes’ below. This new mosaic combines the seven highest resolution images captured by NASA’s New Horizons LORRI imager during history making closest approach flyby on July 14, 2015. Inset at right shows global view of Pluto with location of mosaic and huge heart-shaped region in context. Annotated with place names. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI/ Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Unannotated version below[/caption]

Until barely two weeks ago, Pluto tantalized humanity for eight decades with mysteries we could only imagine – seen as just a point of light or fuzzy blob in the world’s most powerful telescopes.

Now the last explored planetary system in our solar system is being revealed for the first time in history to human eyes, piece by piece, in the form of the highest resolution flyover mosaics and movies of the alien surface ever available, now and for decades to come.

And it’s all thanks to the brilliant efforts of the scientists and engineers leading NASA’s New Horizons mission – which culminated in the first ever close encounter with Pluto and its five moons by a spacecraft from Earth on July 14, 2015.

With the resoundingly successful close flyby completed and the piano shaped New Horizons probe now looking in the rear view mirror, the scientific booty is raining down on receivers back on Earth. However it will take about 16 months to send all the flyby science data back to Earth due to limited bandwidth.

The first series of seven breathtaking high resolution surface images focusing on Pluto’s bright heart-shaped region, informally named ‘Tombaugh Regio’, has been stitched together into our new and wider view mosaic, shown above and below, by the image processing team of Marco Di Lorenzo and Ken Kremer.

Furthermore the New Horizons team has created a spectacular simulated flyover movie centered in the heart of Pluto’s huge ‘Heart’ at ‘Tombaugh Regio’, showing the stunning views including the incredibly recent ice flows and plains of ‘Sputnik Planum’ and monumental icy mountain ranges of ‘Norgay Montes’ and newly discovered ‘Hillary Montes.’

The mosaic and movie are compiled from the seven highest resolution images captured by NASA’s New Horizons LORRI imager during the history making closest approach flyby.

The LORRI images were taken from a distance of 48,000 miles (77,000 kilometers) from the surface of the planet about 1.5 hours prior to the closest approach at 7:49 a.m. EDT on July 14. The images easily resolve structures smaller than a mile across.

New Horizon’s unveiled Pluto as a surprising vibrant and geologically active “icy world of wonders” as it barreled past the Pluto-Charon double planet system on July 14 at over 31,000 mph (49,600 kph) and collected unprecedented high resolution imagery and spectral measurements of the utterly alien worlds.

This annotated image of the southern region of Sputnik Planum illustrates its complexity, including the polygonal shapes of Pluto’s icy plains, its two mountain ranges, and a region where it appears that ancient, heavily-cratered terrain has been invaded by much newer icy deposits. The large crater highlighted in the image is about 30 miles (50 kilometers) wide, approximately the size of the greater Washington, DC area.  Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI
This annotated image of the southern region of Sputnik Planum illustrates its complexity, including the polygonal shapes of Pluto’s icy plains, its two mountain ranges, and a region where it appears that ancient, heavily-cratered terrain has been invaded by much newer icy deposits. The large crater highlighted in the image is about 30 miles (50 kilometers) wide, approximately the size of the greater Washington, DC area. Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

The newly-discovered mountain range has been informally named Hillary Montes (Hillary Mountains) for Sir Edmund Hillary, who first summited Mount Everest with Tenzing Norgay in 1953. They rise about one mile (1.6 kilometers) above the surrounding plains, similar to the height of the Appalachian Mountains in the United States.

They are located nearby and somewhat north of another mountain range discovered first and named Norgay Montes (Norgay Mountains).

“For many years, we referred to Pluto as the Everest of planetary exploration,” said New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colorado.

“It’s fitting that the two climbers who first summited Earth’s highest mountain, Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, now have their names on this new Everest.”

Watch this flyover above Pluto’s icy plains at Sputnik Planum and Hillary Montes:

Video caption: This simulated flyover of two regions on Pluto, northwestern Sputnik Planum (Sputnik Plain) and Hillary Montes (Hillary Mountains), was created from New Horizons close-approach images. Sputnik Planum has been informally named for Earth’s first artificial satellite, launched in 1957. Hillary Montes have been informally named for Sir Edmund Hillary, one of the first two humans to reach the summit of Mount Everest in 1953. The images were acquired by the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) on July 14 from a distance of 48,000 miles (77,000 kilometers). Features as small as one-half mile (1 kilometer) across are visible. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

The LORRI images show “extensive evidence of exotic ices flowing across Pluto’s surface and revealing signs of recent geologic activity, something scientists hoped to find but didn’t expect.”

Sputnik Planum is a Texas-sized plain, which lies on the western, left half of Pluto’s bilobed and bright heart-shaped feature, known as Tombaugh Regio.

The new imagery and spectral evidence from the Ralph instrument appears to show the flow of nitrogen ices in geologically recent times across a vast region. They appear to flow similar to glaciers on Earth. There are also carbon monoxide and methane ices mixed in with the water ices.

“At Pluto’s temperatures of minus-390 degrees Fahrenheit, these ices can flow like a glacier,” said Bill McKinnon, deputy leader of the New Horizons Geology, Geophysics and Imaging team at Washington University in St. Louis.

“In the southernmost region of the heart, adjacent to the dark equatorial region, it appears that ancient, heavily-cratered terrain has been invaded by much newer icy deposits.”

“We see the flow of viscous ice that looks like glacial flow.”

Highest resolution mosaic of ‘Tombaugh Regio’ shows the heart-shaped region on Pluto focusing on ice flows and plains of ‘Sputnik Planum’ at top and icy mountain ranges of ‘Hillary Montes’ and ‘Norgay Montes’ below.  This new mosaic combines the seven highest resolution images captured by NASA’s New Horizons LORRI imager during history making closest approach flyby on July 14, 2015.  Inset at right shows global view of Pluto with location of mosaic and huge heart-shaped region in context.  Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Highest resolution mosaic of ‘Tombaugh Regio’ shows the heart-shaped region on Pluto focusing on ice flows and plains of ‘Sputnik Planum’ at top and icy mountain ranges of ‘Hillary Montes’ and ‘Norgay Montes’ below. This new mosaic combines the seven highest resolution images captured by NASA’s New Horizons LORRI imager during history making closest approach flyby on July 14, 2015. Inset at right shows global view of Pluto with location of mosaic and huge heart-shaped region in context. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

As of today, July 26, New Horizons is 12 days past the Pluto flyby and already over 15 million kilometers beyond Pluto and continuing its journey into the Kuiper Belt, the third realm of worlds in our solar system.

New Horizons discovered that Pluto is the largest known body beyond Neptune – and thus reigns as the “King of the Kuiper Belt!”

The science team plans to target New Horizons to fly by another smaller Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) as soon as 2018.

Watch for Ken’s continuing coverage of the Pluto flyby. He was onsite reporting live on the flyby and media briefings for Universe Today from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), in Laurel, Md.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Four images from New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) were combined with color data from the Ralph instrument to create this enhanced color global view of Pluto. (The lower right edge of Pluto in this view currently lacks high-resolution color coverage.) The images, taken when the spacecraft was 280,000 miles (450,000 kilometers) away, show features as small as 1.4 miles (2.2 kilometers), twice the resolution of the single-image view taken on July 13.  Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI
Four images from New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) were combined with color data from the Ralph instrument to create this enhanced color global view of Pluto. (The lower right edge of Pluto in this view currently lacks high-resolution color coverage.) The images, taken when the spacecraft was 280,000 miles (450,000 kilometers) away, show features as small as 1.4 miles (2.2 kilometers), twice the resolution of the single-image view taken on July 13. Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

New Horizons Exits Safe Mode, Operating Flawlessly for Upcoming Pluto Encounter

Latest color image of Pluto taken on July 3, 2015 shows 4 mysterious dark spots.
Best yet image of Pluto was taken by the LORRI imager on NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft on July 3, 2015 at a distance of 7.8 million mi (12.5 million km), just prior to the July 4 anomaly that sent New Horizons into safe mode. Color data taken from the Ralph instrument gathered earlier in the mission. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI
Story updated[/caption]

Despite some hair-raising and unplanned 4th of July fireworks of sorts in deep space which caused NASA’s Pluto bound New Horizons spacecraft to enter “safe mode” due to a computer glitch and temporarily halt all science operations over the weekend, the spacecraft is now fully back on track, “healthy” and working “flawlessly” and set to resume all planned research investigations on Tuesday, July 7, NASA and top mission managers announced at a media briefing held this afternoon, Monday, July 6.

It’s now just exactly one week before the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a fast flyby encounter of the ever intriguing binary planet, at the far flung reaches of the solar system. And the great news could not come soon enough given the proximity of the flyby.

“The spacecraft is in excellent health and back in operation. New Horizons is barreling towards the Pluto system,” stated Jim Green, director of Planetary Science, NASA Headquarters, Washington, at the start of today’s news media briefing.

The $700 million mission remains on track to conduct the complex close flyby science sequence in its entirety, as planned over the next week, including the July 14 flyby of Pluto, despite the scary safe mode episode.

“The New Horizons spacecraft and science payload are now operating flawlessly,” Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator, Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colorado, announced at the media briefing.

NASA unexpectedly lost contact with the New Horizons spacecraft on Saturday, July 4, at about 1:30 p.m. EDT after it suffered a memory related software anomaly and executed a protective operation known as “safe mode.” An anomaly investigation team was formed immediately.

“It’s really a historic time, but also fraught with many decisions and challenges on the way to the July 14 Pluto system encounter,” Green said.

The mission team quickly worked to reestablish contact with the piano shaped spacecraft about 90 minutes after the signal was lost.

“On Saturday we lost contact with the spacecraft. The New Horizons team immediately went into action. Within 90 minutes the signal was reacquired by the team, with the spacecraft in safe mode. They soon found the root cause and corrective actions were immediately taken to get the spacecraft back in business.”

The team worked tirelessly and diligently day and night over the holiday weekend to recover New Horizons back to full operation quickly and in time for the flyby encounter of Pluto on July 14, set for approximately 7:49 a.m. EDT (11:49 UTC) on July 14, said Glen Fountain, New Horizons project manager, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, Laurel, Maryland.

There are no second chances.

This trio of images are the most recent high-resolution views of Pluto sent by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, including one showing the four mysterious dark spots on Pluto that have captured the imagination of the world. The Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) obtained these three images between July 1 and 3 of 2015, prior to the July 4 anomaly that sent New Horizons into safe mode. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI
This trio of images are the most recent high-resolution views of Pluto sent by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, including one showing the four mysterious dark spots on Pluto that have captured the imagination of the world. The Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) obtained these three images between July 1 and 3 of 2015, prior to the July 4 anomaly that sent New Horizons into safe mode. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI

The software glitch occurred a day after new operating software was uploaded to New Horizons last Friday.

The spacecraft was trying to do two things at once on Saturday, compressing science data and writing command sequences while using up too much flash memory, explained Fountain.

“The computer was trying to do these two things at the same time, and the two were more than the processor could handle,” Fountain said.

“So the processor said ‘I’m overloaded.’ Then the spacecraft did exactly what it was supposed to do. It then switched to the backup computer and went into safe mode. At that point, we lost the downlink from the primary computer. We realized quickly what happened and put a recovery plan in place and recovered.”

Artist view of New Horizons passing Pluto and three of its moons. The ship is about the size of a grand piano and kept warm in the cold of the outer Solar System by  heat release from the radioactive decay of plutonium within the probe's RTGs (Radioisotope  Thermoelectric Generator). Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute
Artist view of New Horizons passing Pluto and three of its moons. The ship is about the size of a grand piano and kept warm in the cold of the outer Solar System by heat release from the radioactive decay of plutonium within the probe’s RTGs (Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator). Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

At this moment New Horizons is about 3 billion miles (4.9 billion km) from Earth and less than 6 million miles (9 million km) away from unmasking the secrets of tantalizing Pluto, Charon, its largest moon with which it forms a double planet system, and its four tiny and recently discovered moons. Charon is half the size of Pluto.

The round trip time for signals traveling at the speed of light is 8.5 hours. So it’s a very long time before commands from Earth can reach the spacecraft and for the team to determine their outcome. So the probe has to be able to operate on its own without direction from Earth during the intense and brief flyby period.

Pluto is the most distant and last unexplored planet in our Solar System, and therefore presents enormous complexities to those bold enough to dare the mightiest things.

“We expect a nominal flyby of Pluto from every indication now,” said Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator, Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colorado, announced at the media briefing.

“This object is unlike any other that we have observed,” Stern said. “Both Pluto and Charon are already surprising us.”

Less than 1 percent of the planned data was lost in the three days that the science instruments were shut off.

“It’s more important to focus on the later science during the flyby,” Stern elaborated.

“There is zero impact to the primary Group 1 highest-priority science objectives. And a minor impact to Group 2 and Group 3 objectives,” Stern elaborated.

“This is a speed bump in terms of the total return that we expect from this flyby.”

“I’m pleased that our mission team quickly identified the problem and assured the health of the spacecraft,” noted Green. “Now, with Pluto in our sights, we’re on the verge of returning to normal operations and going for the gold.”

Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI
New Horizons trajectory map to Pluto. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI

The team said this type of software update will not be repeated and a similar type safe mode event should not recur.

Fountain said that during the encounter period, the probe can switch itself to exit safe mode event within about 7 minutes, depending on the situation, and minimize any science data losses.

New Horizons will swoop to within about 12,500 kilometers (nearly 7,800 miles) of Pluto’s surface.

It will zoom past Pluto at speeds of some 30,000 miles per hour (more than 48,000 kilometers per hour).

Today the team also released the best yet images of Pluto that were taken by the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI). The trio of images were between July 1 and 3 of 2015, prior to the July 4 anomaly that sent New Horizons into safe mode.

The images show varying and enigmatic surface features on the different hemispheres of Pluto.

They also show the four mysterious dark spots on Pluto that have captured the imagination of the scientists and the world.

Their nature remains unknown at this time.

The probe was launched back in 2006 on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket.

“We are on our way to Pluto!” Green exclaimed.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Animation of Pluto rotating from photos taken by New Horizons two weeks before the flyby. Credit:
Animation of Pluto rotating from photos taken by New Horizons two weeks before the flyby. Credit:

New Horizons Spacecraft ‘Stays the Course’ for Pluto System Encounter

Following an intense 18 month study to determine if NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft faced potentially destructive impact hazards during its planned 2015 flyby of the Pluto binary planet system, the mission team has decided to ‘stay the course’ – and stick with the originally planned trajectory because the danger posed by dust and debris is much less than feared.

The impact assessment study was conducted because the Pluto system was discovered to be much more complex – and thus even more scientifically compelling – after New Horizons was launched in January 2006 from Cape Canaveral in Florida.

Two years ago researchers using the iconic Hubble Space Telescope discovered two new moons orbiting around Pluto, bringing the total to 5 moons!

It was feared that debris hitting the moons could have created dangerous dust clouds that in turn would slam into and damage the spacecraft as it zoomed past Pluto at speeds of some 30,000 miles per hour (more than 48,000 kilometers per hour) in July 2015.

“We found that loss of the New Horizons mission by dust impacting the spacecraft is very unlikely, and we expect to follow the nominal, or baseline, mission timeline that we’ve been refining over the past few years,” says New Horizons Project Scientist Hal Weaver, of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, in a statement.

After both the team and an independent review board and NASA thoroughly analyzed the data, it was determined that New Horizons has only a 0.3 percent chance of suffering a mission destroying dust impact event using the baseline trajectory.

Hubble Space Telescope view of Pluto and its known moons.
Hubble Space Telescope view of Pluto and its known moons.

The 0.3 percent probability of mission loss is far less than some earlier estimates.

This is really good news because the team can focus most of its efforts on developing the flyby encounter science plan when New Horizons swoops to within about 12,500 kilometers (nearly 7,800 miles) of Pluto’s surface.

Pluto forms a “double planet” system with Charon, its largest moon. Charon is half the size of Pluto.

But the team will still expend some effort on developing alternative trajectories – known as SHBOTs, short for Safe Haven by Other Trajectories, just in case new information arises from the ships camera observations that would force a change in plans as New Horizons sails ever closer to Pluto.

“Still, we’ll be ready with two alternative timelines, in the event that the impact risk turns out to be greater than we think,” says Weaver.

Indeed the team, led by Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute is finalizing the encounter plan this month and plans a rehearsal in July of the most critical nine-day segment of the baseline flyby trajectory.

New Horizons will perform the first reconnaissance of Pluto and Charon in July 2015. The “double planet” is the last planet in our solar system to be visited by a spacecraft from Earth.

And New Horizons doesn’t’ stop at Pluto. The goal is to explore one or more of the icy Kuiper Belt Objects (KBO’s) further out in the Solar System.

The team will use the Pluto flyby to redirect New Horizons to a KBO that is yet to be identified.

And don’t forget to “Send Your Name to Mars” aboard NASA’s MAVEN orbiter- details here. Deadline: July 1, 2013. Launch: Nov. 18, 2013

Ken Kremer

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Learn more about Pluto, Mars, Curiosity, Opportunity, MAVEN, LADEE and NASA missions at Ken’s upcoming lecture presentations

June 23: “Send your Name to Mars on MAVEN” and “CIBER Astro Sat, LADEE Lunar & Antares Rocket Launches from Virginia”; Rodeway Inn, Chincoteague, VA, 8 PM