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Discoveries Continue to Unfold After Pluto Flyby

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Families and space exploration enthusiasts filled the Kossiakoff Center auditorium at The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), in North Laurel, on the morning of July 18. The crowd spilled out into the adjacent dining area and overflow viewing tent, and the scene repeated itself in the afternoon.

The visitors — more than 1,700, by conservative estimates — came from across the mid-Atlantic region to attend Plutopalooza, a celebration of NASA’s New Horizons mission that successfully flew by and explored the dwarf planet earlier in the week.

APL designed, built and operates the New Horizons spacecraft and manages the mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, though it wasn’t the sterile description of APL’s role that mattered to the attendees.

No, this was a rare chance to rub shoulders with planetary exploration rock stars.

Mission directors and scientists were only too happy to regale the electrified audience with their own tales of curiosity and wonder at the mysteries of space, and pass on word of the latest incredible discoveries from a world too far away to even be visualized via telescope.

With the obvious exception of Apollo 11, New Horizons succeeded in capturing the public’s interest and imagination like no other previous exploration mission.

“We were overwhelmed by the public’s desire to engage with us,” said APL Spokesman Mike Buckley, noting that more than 1 billion people were following the mission on social media outlets. “It really was a big shot in the arm for NASA, right when they needed it.”

Return on Investment

Deflated by budget constraints and facing a constant nagging chorus from those who routinely question the necessity of space exploration, NASA has already provided a significant return on its New Horizons investment of $700 million (roughly the median for space missions) with the first high-resolution photos of the Kuiper Belt’s largest object.

“We turned Pluto from this pixelated dot into a real world of complexity and diversity,” said New Horizons Project Scientist Hal Weaver, of APL.

“When you have resolution like this,” said Principal Investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), of Boulder, Co., “you can do real science.”

From the initial packets of data alone, researchers have discovered layers of haze several times higher than scientists predicted, a dark polar cap, a Texas-sized plain (Sputnik Planum) rich in nitrogen, carbon monoxide and methane ices, and flowing ice that suggests recent geologic activity.

“[There] are mountains as high as the Rockies,” remarked Weaver, wondering at how this could be possible on a relatively small dwarf planet on the outskirts of the solar system. “We have to completely rethink our ideas about what happens on these objects. It really is completely revolutionary.”

During the next 16 months, he said, New Horizons will transmit more data on Pluto and all of its moons, enough to keep New Horizons researchers busy for several years.

“That’s going to give us a tremendous increase in all of our knowledge about this whole new realm of the solar system that’s never before been explored,” Weaver said. “This really is something; we’re stepping into the third zone of the solar system.”

That is to say, beyond the rocky planets and gas giants that have already been studied extensively.

Tiny Dynamo

According to New Horizons Deputy Project Scientist Cathy Olkin of SwRI, New Horizons is the fastest spacecraft ever launched from Earth, to date. “It’s traveling at more than 30,000 miles per hour,” she said, “and it takes four-and-a-half hours to send a signal from Pluto to Earth.”

Roughly the size of a grand piano and weighing 1,054 pounds, it carries roughly the same amount of data storage of an average smartphone, she said.

Fittingly, New Horizons is powered by plutonium, the element named for the planet, and carries a scaled down, but fairly robust, scientific instrument package consisting of highly miniaturized cameras, spectrometers, radio science and a student-built dust counter — seven instruments in all.

“Those seven instruments, combined, weigh less than the camera on the Cassini Saturn Orbiter,” said Stern, whose SwRI team leads the mission, science team, payload operations and encounter science planning. “When you turn them all on, all seven draw fewer than 30 watts. Talk about advanced technology.”

Jamie Szalay, lead graduate student on the Student Dust Counter project at University of Colorado Boulder, said measurements taken during the craft’s 9.5-year, 3 billion mile journey to Pluto have revealed a density of 10 particles of space dust per cubic kilometer.

“One of the big results we can measure is how much stuff is falling into the sun from the Kuiper Belt objects,” he said, “about six tons per second.”

He also took the opportunity to encourage students in the audience to dream big.

“You might think you need to be a proper adult to get on one of these missions,” Szalay said, “but [the dust collector project] was able to bring students on from a pretty young age, from right after high school to graduate students.”

And despite their age and experience, he said, “We were the last to get added to the mission, but the first to deliver on time and on budget, as a student instrument.”

Incredible Beauty

Now that New Horizons is well beyond Pluto, its mission isn’t entirely over.

According to Buckley, the New Horizons team is funded through 2017 to do different analyses of the data that’s been collected, and there’s still a chance that the craft could be redirected to fly by at least one other Kuiper Belt Object of scientific interest.

According to Buckley, the New Horizons mission funds data analysis through delivery to the Planetary Data System, where the public can access it, which will occur in 2017. It is also possible that the craft could be redirected to fly by at least one other Kuiper Belt Object of scientific interest.

In the meantime, he said, consumables on New Horizons are more than sufficient to execute a maneuver to change the craft’s trajectory.

“Because the New Horizons team didn’t have to do as many maneuvers as they expected to reach Pluto, it means they have more fuel than they expected to have at this point,” he said.

Quite naturally, the scientists themselves are anxious to see more of the Kuiper Belt from New Horizons’ unique front row perspective — and anxious to make the next breathtaking discovery.

“My jaw was on the ground when I saw [the] first image of an alien atmosphere in the Kuiper Belt,” said Stern. “It reminds us that exploration brings us more than just incredible discoveries. It brings incredible beauty.”