New Horizons Did Amazing Work Before Even Arriving At Pluto

The solar wind data collected by New Horizons will help create more accurate models of the space environment in our Solar System. Image: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio, the Space Weather Research Center (SWRC) and the Community-Coordinated Modeling Center (CCMC), Enlil and Dusan Odstrcil (GMU)

Anybody with an ounce of intellectual curiosity (and an internet connection) has seen the images of Pluto and its system taken by the New Horizons probe. The images and data from New Horizons have opened the door to Pluto’s atmosphere, geology, and composition. But New Horizons wasn’t entirely dormant during its 9 year, billion-plus mile journey to Pluto.New Horizons returned 3 years worth of data on the solar wind that sweeps through the near-emptiness of space. The solar wind is the stream of particles that is released from the upper atmosphere of the Sun, called the corona. The Sun’s solar wind is what creates space weather in our solar system, and the wind itself varies in temperature, speed, and density.The solar wind data from New Horizons, which NASA calls an “unprecedented set of observations,” is filling in a gap in our knowledge. Observatories like the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) and the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) are studying the Sun up close, and the Voyager probes have sampled the solar wind near the edge of the heliosphere, where the solar wind meets interstellar space, but New Horizons is giving us our first look at the solar wind in Pluto’s region of space.pluto-space-wx-simThis solar wind data should shed some light on a number of things, including the dangerous radiation astronauts face when in space. There is a type of particle with extreme energy levels called anomalous cosmic rays. When travelling close to Earth, these high-velocity rays can be a serious radiation hazard to astronauts.The data from New Horizons reveals particles that pick up an acceleration boost, which makes them exceed their initial speed. It’s thought that these particles could be the precursors to anomalous cosmic rays. A better understanding of this might lead to a —> Read More

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