Well last night I stayed up really late (For me) and watched the NASA coverage of the New Horizons flyby. It was definitely one of those once in a life time events and I didn’t want to miss it. I almost did though because the NASA TV stream failed almost immediately, and ustream was buffering a lot, but thankfully the YouTube version was heaps better and allowed me to actually watch the coverage in 720p HD with only a couple moments of buffering.
Thanks to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and their Eyes on the Solar System application, I was able to watch New Horizons via a computer simulation as it conducted scientific experiments and (hopefully) safely flew past the Plutonian system.
After the flyby, there was some random coverage on NASA TV before a press conference with Alan Stern and others on the New Horizons science team which detailed some more information on what we can expect. During the flyby, New Horizons was busy taking scientific measurements and was not relaying anything back to Earth. In fact, as of right now, we still don’t know if New Horizons survived its flyby. Debris inside the planetary system could have damaged the probe, although this is extremely unlikely. New Horizons should have sent back its first status message which is on its way to us now. It is due to arrive some time before 11am AEST this morning so we wait with baited breath.
Of course this won’t include much more than a general systems status. The New Horizons team said it is likely to take 15 months for us to receive all the data from the Pluto flyby. At best, the probe is sending information back to Earth at 4000 bits per second, approximately 500 bytes per second. This is extremely slow and with 7 scientific instruments, you can imagine the sheer amount of data the team has to receive.
It is pretty amazing fact that they aimed for a point about 12512km from the surface of Pluto and were only off by 70km and hit it 72 seconds early, still well within the range of their target box. After traveling billions of kilometres, it was pretty much able to hit the head of a needle, amazing stuff.
Last night we received our best view of Pluto yet and it shows a younger surface geologically speaking than was first thought whereas Charon seems much older. Why Pluto’s surface is young is a question we’ll have to wait to answer, but it isn’t a phenomenon limited to Pluto. Jupiter has 2 moons that are geologically active, Io and Europa. Io is so close to Jupiter that its tidal forces squeeze and stretch the moon keeping its interior molten and causing it to be the most geologically active place in our solar system.
Europa is the next moon out and for similar tidal reasons is also geologically active. Being an icy moon, it is thought that the crust of Europa is hiding a gigantic salt water ocean that is kept liquid thanks to tidal stretching and squeezing from Jupiter.
Enceladus, the small moon of Saturn is another geographically young surface and the ‘brightest’ moon in the solar system. Its surface is covered with such fresh ice that it reflects almost 100% of the light that hits it. The Cassini probe has seen geysers of water ices which are covering the surface.
We will have to wait to see if they do extend the mission to include some Kuiper Belt Objects. Stern said that the RTG (Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator) powering New Horizons will last into the 2030’s, but that is no guarantee that the mission will continue, especially if there was damage relating to its Pluto flyby.
In case you missed it though, here is what is currently our best view of Pluto, and if you’re not sure how big Pluto is in relation to other smaller bodies in our solar system, check this image out courtesy of The Planetary Society.
EDIT: 10:53am We’re in lock with New Horizons, awaiting telemetry.
EDITL 10:54am Lock confirmed, receiving telemetry. New Horizons survived its transit of the Plutonian system.