How about a change of pace? One bright spot in today’s news is the New Horizons mission to the outer reaches of the Solar System. This morning, the space probe zipped past Pluto in data collection mode after almost ten years in space. More than three billion miles after launch, the flyby looked a little bit like this simulation:
— NASA (@NASA) July 14, 2015
It’ll be a while before we get all the data New Horizons is collecting, and even longer before planetary scientists analyze it.
New Horizons’ almost 10-year, three-billion-mile journey to closest approach at Pluto took about one minute less than predicted when the craft was launched in January 2006. The spacecraft threaded the needle through a 36-by-57 mile (60 by 90 kilometers) window in space — the equivalent of a commercial airliner arriving no more off target than the width of a tennis ball.
Because New Horizons is the fastest spacecraft ever launched – hurtling through the Pluto system at more than 30,000 mph, a collision with a particle as small as a grain of rice could incapacitate the spacecraft. Once it reestablishes contact Tuesday night, it will take 16 months for New Horizons to send its cache of data – 10 years’ worth — back to Earth.
The biggest questions: does the dwarf planet have an atmosphere? Plumes? Water ice?
We almost didn’t get this chance. On July 4, NASA disclosed that a software glitch had put New Horizons into safe mode. Fortunately, NASA was able to fix the problem by July 7. Imagine trying to fix a computer with a nine-hour roundtrip lag between commands and responses. NASA says the probe’s scientific instruments were fully operational and recording for the flyby.
In the meantime, New Horizons is moving into the Kuiper Belt where it will hopefully cross paths with some belt objects, which are hard to spot from Earth.