Update: At just prior to 9:00 p.m. EST, the New Horizons spacecraft sent back a series of, “I’m good” messages following the flyby. Data will be inbound over the next week on this schedule. The full dataset from the flyby will take over a year to transmit. Think about that the next time you complain about a few seconds of buffering on your Netflix stream!
We interrupt your regularly scheduled post for a news bulletin more than 9 years in the making. Today, after traveling faster than any man-made object, New Horizons will be entering the Pluto system. If you follow me on Twitter @JoeCUGeek (you should, but don’t take my word for it), you’d know how fascinated I am with the progress. And how can you not!
Try to wrap your head around this: We built a spacecraft, composed of parts from all over planet Earth, then we strapped it onto a giant rocket. 3-2-1…liftoff! Atop thousands of pounds of explosive chemicals and gases, this craft was shot beyond escape velocity to exit our gravitational pull. But that wasn’t enough. Pluto is really far. Not light-years far, which is crazy far, but far if you are planning on moving a physical object to it. So the rocket was specially outfitted with additional thrusters to give it more boost. That’s not all! If you launch within the next 15 minutes, we’ll also attach a one-of-a-kind rocket inside the bigger rocket to push a bit harder. With this combination, New Horizons would get there, but time was of the essence. As Pluto moves away from the Sun during its 90,465-day orbit, a little bit of its suspected atmosphere freezes away daily. The sooner our gadgets can arrive, the better science we can collect.
How does one go faster than our biggest rockets can push? Ask for a leg up from the big kid. Launched to coincide with a unique planetary alignment, New Horizons was able to grab a gravity assist from Jupiter, adding 9,000 mph to an already fast spacecraft. Of course, this upset Jupiter, who now, due to conservation of energy, has slowed down a tiny bit. It’s estimated that in 5 billion years (around when the Sun will swell into a red giant and consume Earth), Jupiter will be one millimeter off in its orbit. The nerve.
With the additional gravity assist, New Horizons is now traveling over 30,000 miles per hour (relative to our sun’s movement), eliminating 3-4 years of travel time. I’ve never been offered that upgrade at the airport! Remember I mentioned how far Pluto was? Well, of that 9-year journey, 8 were spent after passing Jupiter. Our solar system is big. And it’s just one of billions in a single galaxy, among one galactic cluster, in one supercluster, nestled within one corner of the observable universe. Feeling small yet?
Once a week, New Horizons has called us here on Earth to say, “yep, I’m still good”, then it was back to sleep. You’d nap in the car too for that long a trip. But now, slumber is done. It’s all hands (and instruments) on deck. Since the energy to accelerate and decelerate are equivalent, there are no plans to slow New Horizons down before or during the flyby. So everything will happen fast. Given that it takes even light over 4 hours to cover the distance one way, plans need to be spot on. Good thing everyone had help.
During the journey, ground and space-based telescopes have squinted towards Pluto to get a better picture of what awaits New Horizons. From these blurry measurements, tiny course corrections refined the path. Over the past few weeks, history has been made. Each day, the images returned dwarf the best observed throughout all of humanity. It’s not just the flyby; as the craft approached the Pluto system, scientific discoveries were made. Think of the excitement when you can first see your destination far off in the distance. Now remember you have no brakes. Got your cameras ready?
Today marks a milestone in human history. Formal planet or not, Pluto represents the furthest reaches of our solar system (assuming you don’t include the Oort Cloud). Sure, we’ve seen Mercury (RIP: MESSENGER), landed on Venus (It’s really hot), rolled around Mars (Next mission: Dune buggy races…Dune, get it?), and orbited all the gas giants at least once. But Pluto was always the mysterious “beyond”. It’s no accident Pluto was named after the god of the underworld. A place humanity couldn’t go and never would learn about, New Horizons really is uncovering a new horizon.
I cannot be more excited for the imagery and other data returned from New Horizons during and after this flyby. If you want to keep updated, NASA TV will be broadcasting with glee nonstop (“Schedules be darned! New Horizons forever!” is probably the producer’s chant). Full mission details, as well as the potential future Kupier Belt targets (oh yes, New Horizons will have more flybys in the future!), can be gathered on the official New Horizons mission site.
Next week, I’ll be back with a credit union-focused post. In the meantime, join me in celebrating the best of human accomplishments and remember the big picture of why we all strive for greatness and growth. We’re a tiny planet, nestled in an outer arm of a fairly typical galaxy. If Earth was our town and our solar system the state, we’re finally getting to know those who live out on the fringes, and, joining the Voyager spacecrafts, looking out at what’s beyond those boundaries.
And now you have an excuse for watching TV during work.
Image credit: NASA