Flying by Pluto: A Celebration of Science | Guest Blog by Natalie Panek
July 14, 2015
It’s an exciting day in the history of space travel. Today, after more than 9 years flying through the far reaches of our galaxy, the New Horizon’s spacecraft will reach the furthest ice dwarf (formerly the furthest planet) in our galaxy. We asked our resident Rocket Scientist and Mission Systems Engineer at MDA’s Robotics and Automation division, Natalie Panek for her thoughts.
Here’s some of her expert insight into this scientific breakthrough:
Powered by Plutonium.
A journey across 7.5 billion kilometers.
Driven by curiosity.
A celebration of science.
In January 2006 New Horizons launched on an Atlas V rocket, kicking off a journey that has lasted nearly a decade. The New Horizons spacecraft will gain insight into what is known as the unexplored third zone of our solar system. This mission to Pluto is an opportunity to study and explore the cosmos in ways that we have not before and will provide exciting new insight into this tiny, icy world. It matters because our quest for knowledge is at the forefront of exploration and crosses the line where the impossible becomes possible.
“The New Horizons spacecraft is a robust, lightweight observatory designed to withstand the long, difficult journey from the launch pad on Earth to the solar system’s coldest, darkest frontiers.” The spacecraft is composed of a number of sub-systems including command and data handling, thermal control, propulsion, guidance and control, communications, and its science instruments – all working eloquently in tandem to make this mission viable. New Horizons is piano-sized and powered by a radioisotope power system rather than solar cells because Pluto is so far from the sun. And it is revealing everything from detailed features of the dwarf planet’s surface such as impact craters and possible cliffs, to its size.
Through missions like New Horizons, we seek out unfamiliar scenarios and places to test limits and push boundaries. Because we have a fascinating curiosity for science and the unknown. Where the vastness of space makes us want to know more and need to know more. The beauty of the New Horizons mission is that it has evolved along with our modes of communication on Earth. Nine and a half years after its launch no one could have predicted the impact of this mission through something called ‘social media’. How New Horizons is providing near real-time images of its approach to the dwarf planet through its own Twitter account. And remarkably these images can be shared around the world through a click of a button. Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory also has “Eyes on Pluto”; a 3-D environment with real NASA mission data that allows visitors to virtually ride along with New Horizons as it flies by Pluto. Other features include watching data and images as they are captured in real time, or previewing mission events in advance.
And there may be more after Pluto! There is another class of very small celestial objects collectively known as Kuiper Belt Objects beyond Pluto. New Horizons has the capability to fly there and explore them through extra hydrazine fuel carried on board. The Hubble Space Telescope revealed three of such objects in 2014 with possible flyby dates in late 2018 or in 2019. The next steps would be to select the best candidate (in summer 2015, after the Pluto flyby) and work on a proposal for an extended science mission.
So are you ready? The July 14 flyby will reveal an exciting array of world-first images of Pluto reaching the farthest body in the classical solar system. Without a doubt New Horizons is possible because its team embodied the ‘Foundations of Mission Control’: teamwork, competence, toughness, discipline, responsibility, and confidence. A team working side by side to change the face of space and push the boundaries of exploration. New Horizons is a story about being the first humans to explore this world. And more than anything, this emphasizes the intricate balance between human progress and an entire universe waiting for discovery.