Ice Investigators: The Mission
|The Science||The Mission||The Team|
In 2006, NASA dispatched an ambassador to the planetary frontier. The New Horizons spacecraft is now halfway between Earth and Pluto, on approach for a dramatic flight past the icy dwarf planet and its moons in July 2015. Following its close encounter with Pluto and its icy companion Charon, the New Horizons team hope to redirect the spacecraft toward another icy body in the Kuiper belt, the vast swarm of small worlds beyond Neptune that includes Pluto as one of its largest members. Perhaps you will help the team find that next Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) through this website!
New Horizons launched on Jan. 19, 2006; it swung past Jupiter for a gravity boost and scientific studies in February 2007, and will conduct a five-month-long reconnaissance flyby study of Pluto and Charon in spring and summer 2015. Pluto closest approach is scheduled for July 14, 2015. As part of an extended mission, the spacecraft is expected to head farther into the Kuiper Belt to examine one or two of the ancient, icy mini-worlds in that vast region, a billion miles beyond Neptune's orbit.
Sending a spacecraft on this long journey will help us answer basic questions about the surface properties, geology, interior makeup and atmospheres on these bodies.
The Pluto Encounter
The busiest part of the Pluto-Charon flyby will last a full Earth day, from a half-day before closest approach to a half-day after. On the way in, the spacecraft will look for ultraviolet emissions from Pluto's atmosphere and make the best global maps of Pluto and Charon in blue, red, and infrared light, and a special wavelength that is sensitive to methane frost on the surface. It will also take higher-resolution black-and-white images, and make spectral maps in the near infrared, revealing Pluto's and Charon's surface compositions and the locations and temperatures of surface materials. The spacecraft will come as close as about 7,800 miles (12,500 kilometers) from Pluto and about 18,000 miles (29,000 kilometers) from Charon. During the half-hour when the spacecraft is closest to Pluto or its largest moon, it will take close-up pictures in both visible and near-infrared wavelengths. The best pictures of Pluto will depict surface features as small as 300 feet (about 100 meters) across.
Even after the spacecraft passes Pluto and its moons, its work is far from done. Looking back at the mostly dark side of Pluto or Charon is the best way to spot haze in the atmosphere, to look for rings, and to figure out whether their surfaces are smooth or rough. Also, the spacecraft will fly through the shadows cast by Pluto and Charon. It can look back at the Sun and Earth, and watch the light from the Sun or the radio waves from transmitters on Earth. The best time to measure the atmosphere happens as the spacecraft watches the Sun and Earth set behind Pluto and Charon.
Beyond Pluto: Exploring the Kuiper Belt
After passing Pluto and Charon, pending NASA approval of an extended mission, the spacecraft can retarget itself for an encounter with a KBO. The KBO target will not be selected until shortly before the Pluto encounter, but scientists hope to find one or more that the spacecraft can reach that are at least 30 miles (about 50 kilometers) across. This encounter would be similar to the Pluto-Charon encounter; the spacecraft would map the KBO with high resolution images, investigate its composition using infrared spectroscopy and four-color maps, and look for an atmosphere and moons.
This is where you come in. To find these icy KBO targets we need your help poring over thousands of ground based images, taken specially for this purpose using giant telescopes. Hiding within these images are undiscovered slow-moving Kuiper Belt Objects, asteroids zipping through the foreground, and millions of background stars.