We Reach Pluto Tomorrow! 10 Fast Facts About 'New Horizons'

NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute
NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

Tomorrow morning, July 14, at 7:49 am ET, the spacecraft New Horizons makes its closest approach to Pluto in history. We'll be nearer to Pluto than New York City is to Hong Kong. Over the coming months the spacecraft will return libraries of knowledge about the mysterious planet. Here are a few things you might not know about the extraordinary probe.

1. New Horizons is the fastest spacecraft ever launched.

In 2006, an Atlas V rocket blasted New Horizons into space. By its third separation stage, the spacecraft was traveling a shade under 10 miles per second. To give some idea of its speed, it took the Apollo astronauts three days to get to the moon. New Horizons reached the same distance in nine hours.

2. Jupiter’s gravity acted as a slingshot on the probe.

A “gravity assist” involves a spacecraft flying near a planet and using that planet’s gravity to change speed or direction, as if flung by a giant slingshot. Jupiter’s gravity hurled New Horizons an extra 9,000 miles per hour, ramping up its speed to 52,000 miles per hour. While traveling through the Jovian system, New Horizons gave its instruments a test run, capturing such never-before-seen phenomena as lightning near Jupiter’s poles.

3. It is carrying the ashes of the man who discovered Pluto.

In 1930, Clyde Tombaugh, an American astronomer at the Lowell Observatory, discovered the planet that was eventually named Pluto. Tombaugh died in 1997, and New Horizons is carrying a small amount of his ashes. When the probe eventually moves beyond the Kuiper Belt, Tombaugh's ashes will be the first to travel beyond our solar system. The probe also carries a CD-ROM containing the names of 434,000 people who signed up to have their names sent to Pluto.

4. Planetary scientists consider Pluto a “science wonderland.”

That’s how the team at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory, which operates the New Horizons mission for NASA, describes the Pluto system. In addition to mapping Pluto’s geology and morphology, and analyzing its atmosphere and weather, New Horizons will study Charon, Pluto’s largest moon. By orbiting around a common center of gravity, the two worlds make up the only “binary planet” in the solar system. This is the first time we can study a new planetary class known as “ice dwarf” (the other two in our solar system being terrestrial planets and gas giants).

5. The entire mission will use less power than two 100-watt bulbs.

The energy efficient spacecraft is powered by a radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG), a kind of plutonium power plant. Like a big thermos bottle, the spacecraft is wrapped in thermal blankets (the gold foil seen in photographs) to hold in the heat produced by the spacecraft’s electronics, keeping them at a stable temperature. Notably, the RTG doesn’t provide propulsion. The spacecraft is still flying on the speed created by the launch and Jupiter’s gravity assist.

6. Its data is transmitted to Earth at 2 kbps.

The spacecraft uses a giant dish antenna to communicate with NASA’s Deep Space Network. It’s no trivial effort, though; the beam is only 0.3-degrees wide and has to hit Earth from Pluto and, eventually, beyond. (Considering the distances involved, New Horizons is quite the sharpshooter.) It takes four hours for data to arrive at the spacecraft, and once the flyby is complete, the probe will need a full 16 months to send all the data home.

7. There is almost zero margin for error.

The numbers are astonishing: New Horizons has traveled 3 billion miles at approximately 31,000 miles per hour (currently) and, if all goes as planned, will hit a target just 200 miles across. Because of orbital mechanics, if it is 100 seconds off course, it will not be able to gather 100 percent of the desired scientific data. Think about that: 100 seconds off course from a travel time of 9.5 years. Now that’s precision.

8. New moons mean new dangers.

In 2011, New Horizons discovered a second moon orbiting Pluto (Kerberos), and a year later a third (Styx). That’s been both exciting and worrying. These moons lack the mass and gravity to keep debris caused by planetary collisions from flying into space, where they could potentially smash into New Horizons. Debris doesn’t have to be big to be a threat: a piece the size of a grain of rice could prove catastrophic to the probe. Think of a rock hitting your windshield. Now imagine if you were driving 31,000 miles per hour.

9. The USA is the first country to explore every planet in the solar system.

NASA has been the first to launch each spacecraft that has successfully visited every planet, starting with Mariner 2 in 1962. July 14 is also the 50th anniversary of the Mariner 4 mission to Mars, the first exploration of the red planet. New Horizons completes humanity’s reconnaissance of the classical solar system.

10. The New Horizons mission does not stop with Pluto.

Once the spacecraft passes Pluto, it will have enough power and propellant to continue into the Kuiper Belt, a gigantic zone of icy bodies and mysterious small objects orbiting beyond Neptune. These objects are the building blocks of Pluto and planets like it. The new course will take New Horizons one billion miles beyond Pluto.

A Snow Moon—the Year’s Brightest Supermoon—Will Be Visible Next Week


Save the date: The next supermoon is set to light up skies on Tuesday, February 19. Because of when it's arriving, the event will also be a snow moon—a type of full moon that can only been seen this time of year, USA Today reports.

What is a supermoon?

A supermoon occurs when the moon is at its largest in the night sky. That means the Moon is not only full, but also at the point in its orbit that brings it closest to Earth—a position called perigee. On Tuesday, the Moon will appear 14 percent larger and 30 percent brighter than when it's farthest from our planet, making it the brightest supermoon of 2019.

This next supermoon will also have a fun nickname that fits the season. The full moon of each month has a special name. A harvest moon, the first full moon of September, is the best-known moniker, but there are also strawberry moons (June), sturgeon moons (August), and so on. A snow moon is the name for the full moon in February, alluding to February being the snowiest month of the year in the U.S.

When to watch the next supermoon

If the weather is clear in your area, the best time to see the super snow moon is early Tuesday morning on February 19, when the moon reaches its perigee. The Moon will become officially full six hours later at 10:53 a.m. EST. Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday nights will also offer spectacular views of a seemingly huge, nearly full moon.

Supermoons usually happen just a few times a year, but skygazers won't have to wait long for the next one: There's a super worm moon coming March 21, 2019.

[h/t USA Today]

11 Photos From the Opportunity Rover's Mission on Mars


In 2004, the rover Opportunity landed on Mars. Originally intended to serve a mere 90-day mission, the rover instead beamed back scientific discoveries for 15 years. But since a massive dust storm in 2018, the rover Opportunity ceased sending data—and now, NASA has declared its groundbreaking mission complete. (Its twin rover, Spirit, ended its mission in 2011.) Opportunity is the longest-serving robot ever sent to another planet. Let's celebrate Opportunity's Mars mission with a look at the images it captured.

1. Opportunity rover gets its first 360° shot.

Rover Opportunity's 360° photo of Mars

This 360° panorama, comprised of 225 frames, shows Mars as it was seen by the Opportunity rover on February 2, 2004. You can see marks made by the rover's airbags, made as Opportunity rolled to a stop. Here's a larger version of the photo.

2. Opportunity rover finds a meteorite.

Opportunity rover's photo of a meteorite on Mars

This meteorite, found by Opportunity on January 19, 2005, was the first meteorite ever identified on another planet. The rover's spectrometers revealed that the basketball-sized meteorite was composed mostly of iron and nickel.

3. Opportunity rover shoots the Erebus Crater and drifts.

Opportunity rover's photo of Erebus craters and drift

On October 5, 2005—four months after Opportunity got stuck in an area NASA nicknamed "Purgatory Dune"—the rover skirted wind-deposited drifts in the center of the Erebus Crater, heading west along the outcrop (the light-toned rock) on the crater's rim, and snapped this photo with its PanCam.

4. Opportunity rover captures Martian rock layers.

Opportunity rover's photo of layers on Mars

Located on the western ledge of the Erebus Crater, this ledge—called "Payson"—has a diverse range of primary and secondary sedimentary layers formed billions of years ago. According to NASA, "these structures likely result from an interplay between windblown and water-involved processes." Opportunity snapped this photo on April 5, 2006.

5. Opportunity rover comes to Cape Verde.

Opportunity rover's photo of Cape Verde

On October 20, 2007, Opportunity celebrated its second Martian birthday (one Martian year = 687 Earth days) by snapping this photo of Cape Verde, a promontory that juts out of the wall of the Victoria Crater. Scattered light from dust on the front sapphire window of the rover's camera created the soft quality of the image and the haze in the right corner.

6. and 7. Opportunity rover is hard at work on Marquette Island.

Opportunity rover's photo of Marquette Island

This photo shows Opportunity approaching a rock called "Marquette Island" on November 5, 2009. Because its dark color made it stick out, the rover team referred to the rock—which investigations suggested was a stony meterorite—as "Sore Thumb." But it was eventually renamed, according to NASA, using "an informal naming convention of choosing island names for the isolated rocks that the rover is finding as it crosses a relatively barren plain on its long trek from Victoria Crater toward Endeavour Crater."

On November 19, 2009, the rover used its rock abrasion tool to analyze a 2-inch diameter area of Marquette, which scientists called "Peck Bay."

8. Opportunity rover encounters SkyLab Crater.

Opportunity rover's photo of SkyLab Crater

Opportunity snapped a photo of this small crater, informally called Skylab, on May 12, 2011. Scientists estimate that the 30-foot crater was formed within the past 100,000 years. Click the photo for a larger version. You can also see the crater in stereo if you have a pair of anaglyph glasses!

9. Opportunity rover sees its shadow.

Opportunity rover's selfie

On its 3051st day on Mars (August 23, 2012), Opportunity snapped this photo of its own shadow stretching into the Endeavour Crater.

10. Opportunity rover sees its first dust devil.

Opportunity rover's photo of a dust devil
NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell University/Texas A&M

Though its twin rover, Spirit, had seen many dust devils by this point, Opportunity caught sight of one for the first time on July 15, 2010.

11. Opportunity rover snaps a selfie.

Opportunity rover's self-portrait
NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell University/Arizona State University

A girl sure can get dusty traversing the Martian plains! Opportunity snapped the images that comprise this self-portrait with its panoramic camera between January 3 and January 6, 2014, a few days after winds blew off some of the dust on its solar panels. The shadow belongs to the mast—which is not in the photo—that the PanCam is mounted on.