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NASA probe flies past Pluto, world awaits historic images

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Applause by Nasa New Horizons team as countdown to the Pluto flyby ends. Picture sent on twitter by Nasa
Picture sent on twitter by NASA

Washington, In what may necessitate rewriting of science books, NASA’s New Horizons probe — after travelling over 4.8 billion km — on Tuesday flew past the mysterious dwarf planet Pluto on the outermost fringes of the solar system.

Flying past Pluto at a distance of about 12,500 km at around 5 p.m. (Indian standard Time), the probe, launched a decade ago, was expected to beam back key images of Pluto’s surface to Earth in about nine hours — the time it takes the communication to reach Earth from Pluto.

The images will also help scientists explore the mysterious Kuiper Belt — a huge band of planetary debris left over from the solar system’s formation 4.5 billion years ago.

The most dangerous hazards for the probe — flying at a speed of 45,000 km per hour — were dust particles trapped in orbit around Pluto and a strike can cripple the spacecraft, scientists said, but added that such a risk was very low.

The first images will debut on Facebook-owned photo-sharing website Instagram, NASA has announced.

“We made an editorial decision to give the world a sneak peek of the image on Instagram,” NASA social media manager John Yembrick told wired.com.

On board the New Horizons are seven sophisticated science instruments and the ashes of Clyde Tombaugh, the astronomer who discovered Pluto in 1930.

NASA was expecting a dark grey icy planet but the probe found it is red and appeared to be oxidized like Mars.

Earlier, the New Horizons probe settled one of the most basic questions about Pluto — its size. Mission scientists have found Pluto to be 2,370 km in diameter, somewhat larger than many prior estimates.

Images acquired with the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) on board the New Horizon probe were used to make this determination.

The result confirms that Pluto is larger than all other known solar system objects beyond the orbit of Neptune, the US space agency said in a statement.

“The size of Pluto has been debated since its discovery in 1930. We are excited to finally lay this question to rest,” said mission scientist Bill McKinnon from Washington University in St Louis.

Pluto’s newly-estimated size means that its density is slightly lower than previously thought, and the fraction of ice in its interior is slightly higher.

Measuring Pluto’s size has been a decades-long challenge due to complicating factors from its atmosphere.

Its largest moon Charon lacks a substantial atmosphere, and its diameter was easier to determine using ground-based telescopes.

New Horizons observations of Charon confirm its previous estimated size of 1,208 km across.

Two other moons – Nix and Hydra – were discovered using the Hubble Space Telescope in 2005. Nix is estimated to be about 35 km across while Hydra is roughly 45 km across.

These sizes lead mission scientists to conclude that their surfaces are quite bright, possibly due to the presence of ice.

Pluto’s two smallest moons, Kerberos and Styx, are smaller and fainter than Nix and Hydra and are harder to measure, the US space agency said.

(IANS)

 

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Parker Solar Probe Working As Planned: NASA Mission Controllers

Further instrument check-outs and deployments are scheduled in the coming days for the spacecraft.

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Several other designs on the spacecraft keep Parker Solar Probe sheltered from the heat. Flickr

NASA ‘s historic mission to solve the mysteries of the Sun which was launched aboard a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket on August 12 is operating according to plan, mission controllers have said.

As of 12 p.m. EDT on August 16, the Parker Solar Probe was 4.6 million kms from Earth, travelling at 62,764 kms per hour, and heading toward its first Venus flyby scheduled for October 3, 2018, Geoff Brown of Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab, or APL, in Maryland, wrote in a NASA blog post on Friday.

The spacecraft will use Venus to slightly slow itself and adjust its trajectory for an optimal path toward the first perihelion of the Sun on November 5 this year.

“Parker Solar Probe is operating as designed, and we are progressing through our commissioning activities,” said Project Manager Andy Driesman of APL.

This solar probe is humanity’s first-ever mission into the Sun’s atmosphere, called the corona. Here it will directly explore solar processes that are key to understanding and forecasting space weather events that can impact life on Earth.

The mission has already achieved several planned milestones toward full commissioning and operations, according to the mission controllers.

NASA-Parker-Solar-Probe
NASA’s Parker Solar Probe in Space. (IANS)

On August 13, the high-gain antenna, which Parker Solar Probe uses to communicate high-rate science data to Earth, was released from locks which held it stable during launch.

Controllers have also been monitoring the spacecraft as it autonomously uses its thrusters to remove (or “dump”) momentum, which is part of the flight operations of the spacecraft.

Managing momentum helps the spacecraft remain in a stable and optimal flight profile.

There are four instrument suites on board Parker Solar Probe, which will each need to be powered and readied for science data collection.

The FIELDS investigation, which consists of the most elements, went first. It was powered up on August 13 for two activities, Brown said.

First was the opening of the clamps which held four of the five FIELDS antennas stowed during takeoff.

These antennas will be deployed roughly 30 days after launch, and they will stick out from the corners of the spacecraft’s heat shield called the Thermal Protection System and be exposed to the harsh solar environment.

Parker solar probe
The spacecraft, launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. IANS

Second, the spacecraft’s magnetometer boom was fully deployed. This boom contains three magnetometers and a fifth, smaller electric field antenna, all part of the FIELDS suite.

Also Read: India will Send a Manned Flight into Space by 2020: Modi

Further instrument check-outs and deployments are scheduled in the coming days for the spacecraft, Brown said. (IANS)