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We are counting down to 14 July 2015 when the New Horizons spacecraft will fly by the binary dwarf planet Pluto-Charon. A lot of people, especially the New Horizons team at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland, will keep their fingers and toes crossed, hoping that the painstaking preparations and the navigation of this unique mission will render the results as planned.

PlutoCharon300New Horizons will approach the Pluto system face-on almost perpendicular to the Pluto-Charon orbit which itself is almost perpendicular to the ecliptic. This view, as we also see it at the moment from Earth, happens during two periods of Pluto’s long orbit around the Sun. Early images from New Horizons have already shown the interesting “dance” of this binary system.
The animation here, which was made about at the time that New Horizons was launched, shows the mutual Pluto-Charon orbit to scale. The red dot indicates the joint centre of mass of the system, which lies more than 1000 km above Pluto’s surface (more than Pluto’s radius). Because of their relative size and distance, Pluto and Charon are in mutual tidal locking, which means that they face each other with the same side all the time.

New Horizons will fly close past this system on 14 July at 11:50 UT, at a distance 12,500 km from Pluto's surface. This is well within the orbits of the four moons Styx, Nix, Kerberos and Hydra, the furthest of which (Hydra) has an orbital radius of almost 65,000 km. During the flyby all systems aboard the spacecraft will work overtime, but the observations of the Pluto system have already begun long before that.

New Horizons has been doing science from the moment it came out of hibernation in December 2014. The science team has defined several approach phases) and the third approach phase has begun 23 June and continues until 12 July. After that it is really getting full on during the four days around the actual closest approach (the Near Encounter Phase) while the spacecraft speeds at 13.8 km per second relative to Pluto. The science team has prepared hundreds of tightly orchestrated observation sequences during that phase. The most significant events (see image) during the approach phase are the actual close approach to Pluto at 11:50 UT, the Pluto-Sun occultation at 12:48 UT and the Charon-Sun occultation at 14:15 UT.

new horizonsKey targets are the surface and atmosphere of both Pluto and Charon. High resolution images of the surface will detail down to 70 m per pixel and we will measure the mass of the two dwarf planets ten times better than we know it at present. Atmospheric composition, temperature and pressure gradients will be measured and the instruments will search for possible aurorae, smaller satellites than the four irregular moons we have already discovered, rings, etc. After the closest approach, New Horizons will observe the back-lit atmospheres of Pluto and Charon which gives further opportunities to study the atmospheres, in particular with stellar occultations. Very crucial are the moments that New Horizons will fly through the Pluto and Charon shadows from the Sun, as it will observe a “Solar Eclipse” from both dwarf planets. During these phases a lot of detail of the atmospheric compositions will be revealed with the help of the light from the Sun.

Communications with the spacecraft take more than 4.5 hours at the distance of some 5 billion km. Moreover the spacecraft will collect far too much data during the Close Encounter phase to broadcast in real time and the complete data set will only be available after more than a year. So we will have to be patient to see all the results.

We could well be in for some big surprises! This encounter is truly historic; we have never observed a system in close-up that far away from the Sun. In comparison with the many surprise discoveries at the closer planets and moons during the last half century, it is to be expected that this binary dwarf planet system and its smaller moons will reveal long held secrets. Whatever we find out, it will be spectacular.

Read this preview from Planetary scientist S. Alan Stern, the Principal Investigator of NASA's New Horizons mission.

Image credits:
Animation: Ngā Whetū Resources
Approach: NASA / John Hopkins – APL
New Horizons instruments: NASA

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As real as it gets - Flying above Mars

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Finnish filmmaker Jan Fröjdman transformes imagery from HiRISE, a camera aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, into a dynamic overhead view of the Red Planet.

Watch it here.

 

Great Overview New Horizons mission

alan stern copyMeet Dr. Alan Stern, the Principle Investigator and learn about NASA’s historic mission to Pluto and beyond. Live stream on 13 February 2017 (can be watched again) here.

Introduction to Astronomy restarts

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Highly recommended Ronen Plesser’s free course Introduction to Astronomy will now be offered at Duke University on their new platform Duke Extend. The new session of Introduction to Astronomy starts November 28, and you can learn more and register here.

This ten week course progresses outward from our own Earth into Solar system, Galaxy and Deep Space, to cover essentially everything in the Universe. Watch Ronen's introduction on YouTube here.

Visit Rosetta’s comet in amazing 3D.

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Rosetta spacecraft has impacted on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, ending its very successful mission. You can view the comet in this amazing interactive 3D visualisation here.
Find a description of the tool here.

Are we heading for a new Maunder Minimum?

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Original image here.

We are coming out of the current sunspot cycle 24 which will end around 2019. The maximum of this cycle has yet again been well below that of the previous two cycles.

“Some studies show that sunspot magnetic field strengths […] are already close to the minimum needed to sustain sunspots on the solar surface”.

Read Dr. Sten Odenwald’s Blog here.

ESO Astronomy Camp

ann16031aStudents aged between 16 and 18 years old, can apply for participation in the 4th ESO Astronomy Camp. The camp will take place from 26 December 2016 to 1 January 2017 in Italy and it is organised by ESO and its Science Outreach Network, together with the science education event organiser Sterrenlab and OAVdA.

Click the link 4th ESO Astronomy for detailed information.

Teachers invited to join the STEAM Team

STEAMThe Planetary Society is developing a youth education program with the goal to help teachers educate and engage students around the world in Science, Technology, Engineering, Math, and the Arts.

The STEAM Team is an advisory network of educators from around the world who will help to create the most effective education program possible. We want to bring your educational expertise to bear on a widespread program to enhance STEAM education around the world.

By joining this team, you will become part of a global advisory council of educators. We will reach out to you for feedback on the educational resources we develop, and on the direction of our youth education program as a whole. We’ll send you surveys, questions, and opportunities to share your ideas.

Read more here

What happens at the edge of the Universe?

EdgeoftheUniversePBSWhat is at the edge of the Universe and what happens if we are trying to get there.
In this episode in the Space Time series by PBS Matt tries to answer this question in a scientific way.
Watch it here.

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