Historic Pluto Flyby with NASA’s New Horizons

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After nine years spent traversing the solar system, NASA’s New Horizons space probe will reach its destination on Tuesday, July 14, making the closest ever flyby of the dwarf planet Pluto.

To mark this historic event, the Museum is hosting Breakfast at Pluto, a Google Hangout with Curator Denton Ebel, Director of Astrovisualization Carter Emmart, and Frederick P. Rose Director of the Hayden Planetarium, Neil deGrasse Tyson, beginning at 7 am. This event will feature a live link with New Horizons mission control and an unparalleled chance to watch real-time visualizations of the probe’s mission. You can watch on Google Plus here or in the video at the bottom of this post.

New Horizons encounter with Pluto

New Horizons encounter with Pluto, an artist’s representation.

Credit: Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute


Since its discovery in 1930, Pluto has intrigued astronomers and inspired a fierce loyalty, as the Museum found out when the Rose Center of Earth and Space opened in 2000 without including Pluto among the planets (the International Astronomical Union changed its classification to “dwarf planet” in 2006).

The vast gulf of space that separates us from this celestial object, though, has made it difficult to study, and despite abiding interest from researchers, much about Pluto remains a mystery. 

That’s about to change, courtesy of the New Horizons probe. Launched in 2006, the probe passed Jupiter in 2007, a detour that gave NASA an opportunity to test some of its instrumentation and gather data on the gas giant and its moons. New Horizons also used Jupiter’s gravity to get a speed boost, putting the probe on the fast track to this week’s flyby of Pluto and one of its moons, Charon.

Pluto and Charon

Pluto and its moon, Charon. 

NASA


While you’re waiting to see what New Horizons turns up on the distant dwarf planet, you can learn more about the history of Pluto and some of the researchers who have studied it at the Museum. The Astro Visualization below, produced the year New Horizons launched, traces the probe’s journey—which may continue beyond Pluto into the far-flung Kuiper Belt.


As New Horizons nears the edges of the solar system, Museum scientists have been following along closely, holding events to celebrate the flyby and help parse the information the probe sends back to Earth.

Earlier this year, the Museum hosted members of the New Horizons team, who joined Emmart for a conversation about the mission, sharing details about what it takes to keep a probe on track 3 billion miles from Earth and what they hope to learn from this nearly decade-long project.

On August 11, the popular Hayden Planetarium program Astronomy Live hosts Visiting Pluto and Friends in the 21st Century, which will offer attendees an overview of the mission and discuss the new data the probe has gathered about the dwarf planet.