NASA Missions Have Their Eyes Peeled on Pluto

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft is speeding towards the edge of our solar system for a July 14 flyby of Pluto. It won’t be making observations alone; NASA’s fleet of observatories will be busy gathering data before and after to help piece together what we know about Pluto, and what features New Horizons data might help explain.

Right around New Horizons’ closest approach to Pluto, Cassini will take an image of the dwarf planet from its station in orbit around Saturn. Although Cassini is the closest spacecraft to New Horizons’ distant location, the image of Pluto will be but a faint dot on a field of stars. Even so, the image will provide a scientific measurement of Pluto from a different vantage point that will complement data collected by New Horizons.

Even after New Horizons flies past Pluto, the observations won’t end there. On July 23, the Spitzer Space Telescope will begin a seven-day series of observations, gathering infrared data at 18 different longitudes. The data will reveal possible changes in ice on Pluto’s surface.

“Spitzer is around 4.87 billion kilometers (around 3 billion miles) from Pluto,” said Noemi Pinella-Alonso from the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, and lead investigator of the Spitzer observations. “The spacecraft provides an effective tool to study the ice on the surface and search for other materials that have not yet been identified.”

Beginning in October, the Kepler spacecraft in its new mission, K2, will train its unceasing gaze on Pluto for nearly three months. Similar to how Kepler detected distant planets by measuring the change in brightness from their host star, K2 will record the change in the reflected light off Pluto and its nearest and largest moon, Charon. Scientists will learn more about the effects on the atmosphere and surface of Pluto imparted by the dwarf planet’s eccentric and expanding orbit about the sun. The data may also reveal seasonal changes on this chilly world.

Artist conception of New Horizons Spacecraft. Image credit: Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute.

Artist conception of New Horizons Spacecraft. Image credit: Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute.

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