US New Horizons spacecraft whizzes by Pluto in historic flyby

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  1. salute

    salute Senior Member Senior Member

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    An unmanned NASA New Horizons spacecraft whizzed by Pluto today, making its closest approach in the climax of a decade-long journey to explore the dwarf planet for the first time, the US space agency said.

    An unmanned NASA New Horizons spacecraft whizzed by Pluto today, making its closest approach in the climax of a decade-long journey to explore the dwarf planet for the first time, the US space agency said.

    Moving faster than any spacecraft ever built — at a speed of about 30,800 miles per hour (49,570 kph) — the flyby happened at 7:49 am (1149 GMT), with the probe running on auto-pilot. It was to pass by Pluto at a distance of 7,767 miles (12,500 kilometers).

    “The New Horizons spacecraft passes its closest approach mark at Pluto after a three-billion-mile journey,” a NASA commentator said as spectators waved flags in a crowded room at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Center outside the US capital, Washington.

    “I have to pinch myself. Look what we accomplished. It is truly amazing that humankind can go out and explore these worlds and to see Pluto be revealed just before our eyes. It is just fantastic,” mission operations manager Alice Bowman said.

    New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern described what he called “a moment of celebration,” with the promise of a “16-month data waterfall” ahead that will help scientists write whole new textbooks about Pluto.

    “We have completed the initial reconnaissance of the solar system, an endeavor started under President (John F) Kennedy more than 50 years ago, continuing today under President (Barack) Obama,” Stern told reporters.

    Never before has a spacecraft ventured into the Kuiper Belt, and New Horizons has been on its way there for more than nine years.

    The spacecraft launched in 2006, the same year that Pluto was downgraded to “dwarf planet” status due to the celestial body’s small size.

    New Horizons is the first spacecraft to fly past Pluto, and its seven scientific instruments aim to reveal up-close details of the surface, geology and atmosphere of Pluto and its five moons.

    Already, scientists have learned from New Horizons that Pluto is 20-30 kilometers larger than previously thought, with a radius of 736 miles (1,185 kilometers).

    Scientists have also confirmed the existence of a polar ice cap on Pluto, and found nitrogen escaping from Pluto’s atmosphere.

    “This is truly a hallmark in human history,” said NASA’s head of the science mission directorate, John Grunsfeld.
     
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  3. salute

    salute Senior Member Senior Member

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    Pluto larger than previously thought: NASA
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    NASA's New Horizons mission has settled a decades-long debate about the size of Pluto, discovering that the dwarf planet is 2,370 kilometres in diameter, larger than many prior estimates.

    NASA’s New Horizons mission has settled a decades-long debate about the size of Pluto, discovering that the dwarf planet is 2,370 kilometres in diameter, larger than many prior estimates.

    The size was determined from images acquired with the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) aboard New Horizons spacecraft.

    The result confirms what was already suspected: Pluto is larger than all other known solar system objects beyond the orbit of Neptune.

    “The size of Pluto has been debated since its discovery in 1930. We are excited to finally lay this question to rest,” said mission scientist Bill McKinnon, Washington University, St Louis.

    Pluto’s newly estimated size means that its density is slightly lower than previously thought, and the fraction of ice in its interior is slightly higher.

    Also, the lowest layer of Pluto’s atmosphere, called the troposphere, is shallower than previously believed.

    Measuring Pluto’s size has been a decades-long challenge due to complicating factors from its atmosphere. Its largest moon Charon lacks a substantial atmosphere, and its diameter was easier to determine using ground-based telescopes.

    New Horizons observations of Charon confirm previous estimates of 1,208 km across.

    LORRI has also zoomed in on two of Pluto’s smaller moons, Nix and Hydra.

    “We knew from the time we designed our flyby that we would only be able to study the small moons in detail for just a few days before closest approach,” said New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colorado.

    “Now, deep inside Pluto’s sphere of influence, that time has come,” Stern said.

    Nix and Hydra were discovered using the Hubble Space Telescope in 2005. Even to Hubble, they appeared as points of light, and that’s how they looked to New Horizons until the final week of its approach to Pluto.

    Now, the latest LORRI images show the two diminutive satellites not as pinpoints, but as moons seen well enough to measure their sizes.

    Nix is estimated to be about 35 kilometres across, while Hydra is roughly 45 kilometres across. These sizes lead mission scientists to conclude that their surfaces are quite bright, possibly due to the presence of ice.

    However, Pluto’s two smallest moons, Kerberos and Styx are smaller and fainter than Nix and Hydra, so they are harder to measure.

    Mission scientists should be able to determine their sizes with observations New Horizons will make during the flyby today and will transmit to Earth at a later date.

    After nine years and three billion miles travelled, the New Horizons probe will pass within just 12,500 kilometres of Pluto’s surface.
     
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  4. blueblood

    blueblood Senior Member Senior Member

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    A reminder that India and China are not even close to their capabilities.
     
  5. salute

    salute Senior Member Senior Member

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