Innovations in Science: From Research Paper to Pluto

On July 14 (Bastille Day for my colleagues in France), astronomers the world over will be closely watching their computers as NASA’s New Horizons Pluto-Kuiper Belt Mission probe will come within “approach” distance and fly by the dwarf planet Pluto and its largest moon, Charon. Launched in 2006 the New Horizons mission aims to provide valuable information about the icy worlds at the edge of our solar system as well as important clues about the chemical makeup of all the planets, including Earth. Already more than 300 scientific papers have been published in the past decade, revealing early insights about this mission.

According to a NASA news release, it is theorized that Pluto’s atmosphere of nitrogen, complex seasons, and distinct surface markings and an ice-rock interior may harbor an ocean. The New Horizons suite of instruments which includes cameras, spectrometers, and plasma and dust detectors, will map the geology of Pluto and Charon, their surface compositions and temperatures, examine Pluto’s atmosphere, search for an atmosphere around Charon, study Pluto’s smaller satellites, and look for rings and additional satellites.

Some of the discoveries about Pluto’s moons have come from the Hubble telescope, itself celebrating a milestone anniversary this year. But the New Horizons probe will be the first spacecraft to closely explore the surface of the planet, which is located in an area of the outer solar system known as the Kuiper Belt. The probe will not stop at Pluto but will use its gravitational pull as a boost that will put it on a track to encounter an object known as PT1 before continuing its journey into deep space in 2019. It’s one of several solar system missions in the past 50 years that began with explorations —> Read More