Although the mission is officially just over 2/3rds of the way to its primary target, Pluto, the spacecraft remains healthy and has reached important milestones, recently. In February, it was within 10 AU (Astronomical Units, or the distance from the Earth to the Sun) of Pluto. Today, its approximately 9 AU from Pluto, and closing fast.
The reason for the mission is obvious: Of all the notable bodies in our Solar System, we know the least about Pluto, by far. Prior to being dropped as a major planet, it was noted as being the only planet we hadn”t sent a probe to. Additionally, what we can learn from terrestrial and space-based telescopes has been very limited.
Picture: A view of Pluto and most of its known satellites.
So what are the most important things to learn from the mission?
1. What Does Pluto Look Like?
Despite the discovery of Pluto in the early 20th century, we barely know what it looks like, much less deeper questions. One of the primary instruments has been dubbed “LORRI” (Long Range Reconnaissance Imager). I will improve our knowledge of the surface of the dwarf planet by leaps and bounds. The imager will obtain a picture as fine as 50 meters per pixel. Comparatively, the best images we have of Pluto are nearly a hundred kilometers per pixel.
For reference, here”s the highest resolution image we have of Pluto, currently:
Even with smoothing and other image enhancements, our understanding is severely limited. New Horizons will improve image resolution by unimaginable factors. The resolution of New Horizon”s camera begins transmission of images superior to Hubble on or around May 5th, 2015.
2. What Is The Pioneer Anomaly?
One of the lesser-known aspects of the mission has less to do with Pluto than it does with previously launched missions deep in space. Gravity plays a significant effect on the speed of spacecraft leaving our Solar System. However, the numbers do not add up in the case of the Pioneer spacecraft, which were launched decades ago. Scientists found out that the craft were slowing down significantly faster than what was initially estimated.
Many scientists attribute the difference to thermal radiation, but could there be more to it than what we know? New Horizons will likely offer a definitive answer on the matter, which will further our understanding of deep-space exploration.
3. What Does the Atmosphere of Pluto Look Like & How Do
External Forces Effect the Planet?
We”ve known for a some time that Pluto, like many objects in our Solar System, has a very tenuous atmosphere. New Horizons will greatly enhance our understanding of the composition of Pluto”s atmosphere. The atmosphere of Pluto is a mystery in many ways, due to its interaction with the sun.
How do meteoroids interact with a planetary body like Pluto? Does Pluto have any rings? While instruments tuned to detect atmospheric composition are working, another instrument with the acronym “VBSDC” (Venetia Burney Student Dust Counter) will search for dust in and around Pluto. The research into dust will further our understanding of deep-space objects significantly, and possibly result into knowing if Pluto does indeed, have a ring.
4. Is Pluto Geologically Active?
According to NASA, this is one of the primary missions for New Horizon. For a long time, Pluto has been referenced as an asteroid-turned-planet, which eventually resulted in its downgrade from an official planet to dwarf planet. Because of its origins, it leaves scientists with many questions about the internal structure of such a distant body, and how time has effected the object.
Additionally, Pluto has one of the most unique interactions in the Solar System: its moon Charon orbits very closely to Pluto. In fact, the interaction is far closer and more powerful than any other objects that we know of. How does this affect geology and morphology of planets? Once New Horizons arrives at its destination, we may have these answers.
5. What Do Other Kuiper Belt Objects Look Like?
One key of the New Horizons mission is that it is just a flyby of Pluto and its moons. It will not stay and orbit the object, observing long-term changes in the dwarf planet. Although this is may be frustrating for some fans of Pluto, it does allow for an additional unique situation: after the competition of its mission at Pluto, it will be directed to a new, as-yet-unknown object even further away than Pluto.
The same major questions may apply to the next object: What do deep space objects look like up close? Are they geologically active?
There are many objectives of the New Horizons mission, but these may be the most important ones asked either by the civilian or scientific community. When New Horizons begins its mission in 2015, we hope the world pays attention to the information that New Horizons will divulge from its decade-long journey.