Keep Watch: Pluto-bound Spacecraft Flies by the Icy Planet on Tuesday

High-resolution views of Pluto sent by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft at the beginning of July 2015. Photo courtesy of NASA.

High-resolution views of Pluto sent by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft at the beginning of July 2015. Photo courtesy of NASA.

The dwarf planet Pluto will finally reveal some of its secrets Tuesday, July 14, when the New Horizons spacecraft flies by after a three-billion-mile trip that’s taken nearly a decade.

Smaller than Earth’s moon, Pluto may hold clues to even farther-flung and perhaps even habitable planets in the universe.

Mike Summers

Mike Summers

“For me, as a scientist, this is the endpoint of the reconnaissance of our solar system that started in the 1960s,” said George Mason University astronomy professor Michael Summers, a leading planetary scientist who’s part of the New Horizons team. “It’s as if we’re finally looking at the farthest spot in our backyard—and we’re discovering it’s a pretty marvelous place.”

Space enthusiasts are encouraged to share a glimpse of this historic mission that includes scientists from NASA, Southwest Research Institute, Stanford University, Johns Hopkins University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Summers will be in New Horizons’ mission operations center at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Columbia, Md., when the spacecraft whizzes by less than 7,800 miles above Pluto’s surface. He has some tips for those wanting to follow the events during the encounter.

One of the final images taken before New Horizons made its closest approach to Pluto on July 14, 2015. Photo courtesy of  NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

One of the final images taken before New Horizons made its closest approach to Pluto on July 14, 2015. Photo courtesy of NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

Images of Pluto and Charon

First, check out the photos. They’ll be shown on the NASA New Horizons website before July 14, but those just before that date will show the best detail on Pluto’s surface and that of Pluto’s moon, Charon. There will be lectures and mission updates NASA’s website. Also, follow along on social media  (@NASANewHorizons; #PlutoFlyby;www.facebook.com/pages/New-Horizons/108365772519065).

“We could see mountains, dark sea-like areas or plains, and possibly atmospheric clouds,” said Summers, who’s been studying Pluto since 1985 and has been part of the New Horizons project since it first became a what-if idea about 16 years ago. “We might see ice volcanoes! It’s going to be our first close-up view of an entirely new type of world.”

Atmosphere

Pluto’s atmosphere is made up mostly of nitrogen gas, like that of the Earth’s, but it is much less dense. Even so, a closer look could reveal clouds and weather, Summers said.

Solar Wind

How the solar wind behaves so far away from the sun is another question scientists hope to answer, Summers said.

The sun batters Earth and other planets in our solar system with a constant high-energy plasma. Earth has a magnetic field to protect us from the full force of this wind. But not all planets are so fortunate­­––the solar wind stripped most of the atmosphere from Mars long ago.

The solar wind carries charged ions into the Earth’s upper atmosphere. The solar flares and storms that create the beautiful Northern Lights can also disrupt communication satellites and cause major power grid failures.

Five Moons

One of Pluto’s five moons, Charon, may have its own atmosphere. Charon is so close to Pluto that it would look seven times as wide as our moon does to us on Earth. The mission will be sending back detailed information about the moons, including information that may help us understand how they formed.

Ice Planet Understanding

“Pluto is our first exploration of the dwarf ice planets in our outer solar system,” said Summers, adding that we have explored the other planets in our solar system, such as the gas giants like Jupiter and rocky planets like Earth. “Understanding Pluto is the next step in understanding the huge diversity of planets in our universe.”

Since the New Horizons spacecraft launched nearly a decade ago, astronomers have learned that habitable planets exist around other stars.

“Now when you see a star in the sky at night, you can know that it most likely has planets around it,” Summers said. “Also, habitable planets are more common than we ever thought. Is there life out there? Intelligent life? These questions aren’t just for science fiction anymore.”

The data is starting to fly in.

“I got about two hours sleep last night,” Summers said Tuesday. “It’s going incredibly well.”

Maybe the next generation of explorers is using laptop computers to look at Pluto much the same way as Summers watched the Apollo astronauts on television. Summers said he’s getting emails from students all over the world, and he hopes they will be inspired to study science and technology.

“Like many of my colleagues on the New Horizons mission, I was inspired by the Apollo missions to go into science. Growing up on a farm in Kentucky,” Summers said, “I could have been a moderately successful farmer. Instead, I became an astronomer.”

This article originally appeared on Mason News

Write to Michele McDonald at mmcdon15@gmu.edu

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