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.

July Is the Best Time to See Saturn and Its Rings This Year

NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute
NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Saturn is the second-biggest planet in our solar system, boasting 95 times the mass of Earth. Even though it's located hundreds of millions of miles away, Saturn is still clearly visible in the night sky during certain times of the year. As EarthSky reports, July is the best month to spot the gas giant, and if you're using a telescope, you may even see its rings and its largest moon.

On July 9, 2019, Saturn entered something called opposition with Earth. This occurs when our planet falls directly in line between Saturn and the Sun. When it's in opposition, Saturn is at its closest point to Earth in its orbit (about 746 million miles away). Due to its position in relation to our planet and the Sun, Saturn also appears especially clear and bright.

Just because opposition has passed doesn't mean your chance to spot Saturn from your backyard is over. The planet may no longer be at peak visibility, but during the weeks and even months surrounding opposition, Saturn will still be close to Earth and easily observable with the naked eye. Without any special tools, Saturn will appear as a bright golden star. If you're using a telescope, look for the planet's iconic rings. Titan, the largest of its 62 moons, may also be visible through a telescope.

To catch a prime view of Saturn, look up on a clear night any time from now through September 2019. At sunset, look above the southeastern sky for white-yellow star. Saturn will appear in the southern part of the sky in the middle of the night and disappear over the northwest horizon at sunrise. Saturn's opposition comes just one month after Jupiter's, which means the solar system's largest planet also looks particularly big and bright this time of year.

[h/t EarthSky]

8 Facts About David Bowie's 'Space Oddity'

Express/Express/Getty Images
Express/Express/Getty Images

Fifty years ago, on July 24, 1969, astronauts walked on the Moon for the first time. Just a few weeks earlier, another space-age event had rocked the world: David Bowie’s single “Space Oddity” hit airwaves. The song, whose lyrics tell the story of an astronaut’s doomed journey into space, helped propel the artist to icon status, and five decades later, it’s still one of his most popular works. In honor of its 50th anniversary, here are some facts about the stellar track.

1. "Space Oddity" was inspired by 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Many listeners assumed that "Space Oddity" was riffing on the Apollo 11 Moon landing of 1969, but it was actually inspired by a Stanley Kubrick film released a year earlier. Bowie watched 2001: A Space Odyssey multiple times when it premiered in theaters in 1968. “It was the sense of isolation I related to,” Bowie told Classic Rock in 2012. “I found the whole thing amazing. I was out of my gourd, very stoned when I went to see it—several times—and it was really a revelation to me. It got the song flowing.”

2. "Space Oddity" was also inspired by heartbreak.

The track was also partly inspired by the more universal experience of heartbreak. Bowie wrote the song after ending his relationship with actress Hermione Farthingale. The break inspired several songs, including “Letter to Hermione” and “Life on Mars,” and in “Space Oddity,” Bowie’s post-breakup loneliness and melancholy is especially apparent.

3. "Space Oddity" helped him sign a record deal.

In 1969, a few years into David Bowie’s career, the musician recorded a demo tape with plans to use it to land a deal with Mercury Records. That tape featured an early iteration of “Space Oddity,” and based on the demo, Mercury signed him for a one-album deal. But the song failed to win over one producer. Tony Visconti, who produced Bowie’s self-titled 1969 album, thought the song was a cheap attempt to cash in on the Apollo 11 mission, and he tapped someone else to produce that particular single.

4. The BBC played "Space Oddity" during the Moon landing.

"Space Oddity" was released on July 11, 1969—just five days before NASA launched Apollo 11. The song doesn’t exactly sound like promotional material for the mission. It ends on a somber note, with Major Tom "floating in a tin can" through space. But the timing and general subject matter were too perfect for the BBC to resist. The network played the track over footage of the Moon landing. Bowie later remarked upon the situation, saying, "Obviously, some BBC official said, 'Oh, right then, that space song, Major Tom, blah blah blah, that’ll be great. 'Um, but he gets stranded in space, sir.' Nobody had the heart to tell the producer that."

5. David Bowie recorded an Italian version of "Space Oddity."

The same year "Space Oddity" was released, a different version David Bowie recorded with Italian lyrics was played by radio stations in Italy. Instead of directly translating the English words, the Italian songwriter Mogul was hired to write new lyrics practically from scratch. "Ragazzo Solo, Ragazza Sola" ("Lonely Boy, Lonely Girl") is a straightforward love song, and Major Tom is never mentioned.

6. Major Tom appeared in future songs.

Major Tom, the fictional astronaut at the center of "Space Oddity," is one of the most iconic characters invented for a pop song. It took a decade for him to resurface in David Bowie’s discography. In his 1980 single "Ashes to Ashes," the artists presents a different version of the character, singing: "We know Major Tom's a junkie/Strung out in heaven's high/Hitting an all-time low." Bowie also references Major Tom in "Hallo Spaceboy" from the 1995 album Outside.

7. "Space Oddity" is featured in Chris Hadfield's ISS music video.

When choosing a song for the first music filmed in space, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield naturally went with David Bowie’s out-of-this-world anthem. The video above was recorded on the International Space Station in 2013, with Hadfield playing guitar and singing from space and other performers providing musical accompaniment from Earth. Some lyrics were tweaked for the cover. Hadfield mentions the "Soyuz hatch" of the capsule that would eventually shuttle him to Earth.

8. "Space Oddity" played on the Tesla that Elon Musk sent to space.

Dummy in Tesla roadster in space with Earth in background.
SpaceX via Getty Images

In 2018, Elon Musk used SpaceX's Falcon Heavy rocket to launch his Tesla Roadster into space. The car was decked out with pop culture Easter eggs—according to Musk, "Space Oddity" was playing over the car’s radio system during the historic journey. The dummy’s name, Starman, is the name of another space-themed song on Bowie's 1972 masterpiece The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.

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