Thursday, July 2, 2015


Key words: New Horizons, Alan Stern

The NASA page of New Horizons says.... 10-Years..,5- Billion kms; truly the human aspirations are racing towards the edge of solar system with an astounding speeds of 80,000 km/hour. To be able to reach Pluto, the New Horizons space craft has to take a slingshot from the giant planet Jupiter. The scientists are going to peek into the new frozen world of Pluto on 14th July 2015 at a distance of just around 12,500 kms having to view football size images with 48-meter resolution. Where as, after its discovery in 1930, Pluto has just been a dot to the best possible astronomical observations from earth, except for few (10-12) pixel across image appearing in the Hubble Space Telescope in 90s. Why are the scientists so excited???  they say.... they have no idea.. may be it is the thickest atmosphere or gaseous jets streaming out.... anything.... so little is known.

New Horizons, Credit : NASA, 
New Horizons (NH).. an unique attempt?
Voyager-1 (Sept-1977) which has crossed the solar system now, had opted for Titan (Saturn's moon) as a compromise to bypass Pluto's flyby. Voyager-2 (Aug-1977) never had a trajectory to flyby Pluto. Then comes... New Horizons (2006)... fully geared to explore this dark world at its gory details. NH got the best opportunity to catch up with the celestial windows to be able to sling shot towards Pluto before the planet drifts further away and the atmosphere it holds getting frozen. As per the inspirational posts from Alan Stern, PI, that every care has been taken to avoid any collision the space craft may suffer due to the un known world around Pluto. "It was a relentless effort of around 2,500 NASA employees's effort that is going take us into these unknown worlds" says Alan Stern.

The Space craft:
To quote NASA, the piano sized space craft weighs 478 kilograms, with the lead role taken by the Southwest Research Institute, APL-JHU and contributions coming from (GSFC, JPL, KSFC, UC, Stanford...) many other institutions, to say a typical American heritage. Its a technological marvel running on a single radio-isotope thermoelectric generator of 200W capacity provided by a 11-kg Plutonium dioxide. Most of the instruments working at an average power of 5W (~ night lamp) and with the data being transmitted via 2.1-m antenna, a must for an object 5-billion kms away and the communication taking almost 9+ hours both ways. 

Instruments, Credit: NASA

The 7-instruments are like gems, hand picked with 10s of deliberations carried to get the maximum from the un-known worlds. In my priority list:
1. LORRI, the telescope/camera comes first. Dubbed as the hawk eyes of New Horizons, it is basically a black and white digital camera with a 20-cm telescope, but built to work in a hostile cold environment. On 14th July, LORRI will be beaming football size images with an unprecedented 50-meter resolution, a life time opportunity for all the planetary scientists. 
2. RALPH, though called as the "main eye", but a complex mixture of instruments comprising of three panchromatic imagers, four color imagers and a spectrograph. It will offer an abundance information on surface geology, morphology and thermal features.
3. ALICE is an imaging UV spectrometer to study the composition of Pluto's atmosphere. A smart baby with a built-in telescope and a huge spectral coverage to study ionic to neutral species.
4. REX, a smart idea of employing occultation technique (looking down to earth's DSN signals via the target atmospheres) to measure pressure, temperature of atmospheres of Pluot and Charon.
5. SWAP, to measure solar wind around Pluto, 6. PEPSSI to look for energetic particles, last but not the least 7. SDC a student dust counter, developed by the students to measure microscopic dust grains produced by the collision among asteroids, comets and KBOs.

Pluto Picture of the Day..... (updated daily...)

Mountain range discovered by NH on 14th July in the Tombough region from a distance of 77,000 km Credit: NASA.

Another secret of Pluto revealed, as NH was moving past Pluto, it captured the haze around Pluto extending to 130 km. Credit: NASA.


It is 17.00 hrs lunar time ..... (Report time: 19.09.2019; 15.00 hrs) Its going to be another 2-earth days time left, that there will be...