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One Giant Step For Space Exploration As Pluto Gets Its Close-Up

Latest photo of Pluto taken prior to New Horizons fly-by on Tuesday, July 14, 2015.
NASA
Latest photo of Pluto taken prior to New Horizons fly-by on Tuesday, July 14, 2015.

New Horizons fly-by captures data, pictures of dwarf planet

New Horizons - NASA
One Giant Step For Space Exploration As Pluto Gets Its Close-Up
GUESTS:Jerry Hilburn, astronomer, NASA Solar System Ambassador ProgramLisa Will,astronomy and physics professor, San Diego City College; resident astronomer, Reuben H. Fleet Science Center

This is a BBS met in addition, I am Maureen Cavanaugh. My fuzzy light and the distant reaches of of our solar system to the detailed look on the surface of an alien world. That's our image on a tour of Pluto is expected to change. New horizon will finally reach Pluto today playing at the amazing speed of 31,000 miles an hour and taking pictures from a mere 7800 miles from Pluto's surface. What do scientists expect to learn the images of Pluto and what else might we discover about the objects orbiting in the furthest regions of our solar system? Joining me to discuss those questions are Jerry Hilburn, astronomer, NASA Solar System Ambassador Program. Also Lisa Will,astronomy and physics professor, San Diego City College; resident astronomer, Reuben H. Fleet Science Center Pluto has been a mystery in our solar system since the time it was discovered, what sets it apart from the other planets? Pluto is smaller than people realize. It's smaller than our own moon. It's so far out it's a significant fraction of ice. We think it's about 35% ice. It's a very different sort of object representing the first object of its type we explored in the outer cold region of the solar system? It has five months X Yes. Its largest moon is about half of its own size. If you're arguing that he still want Pluto to be a planet, you better call it a double planets. When new horizons spacecraft launched in 2006, Pluto was still designated as a planet. Her might is how it came to be changed to a dwarf planet. And object was discovered those thought to be larger than Pluto go Pluto is now larger that Ayres has more mass. It's a debate. Astronomers have been debating all Pluto's monetary status ever since we realize how small it is. It has an orbit very different from the other planets and its composition is very different. That put the international astronomical unit on the spot and he came up with a horrible mice to call it a dwarf planet. There are other of these ice planets there are in a built? One of the reasons I dislike the term dwarf planet it also includes things that are asteroid belt which is compositionally different. Basically had these objects that are round and asked have enough gravity to make themselves round the orbit a star. In terms of their orbits this other debris around them and that's what does qualify them -- disqualified them. New horizons is going to characterize the surface material, Pluto is taking a look at the upper atmosphere. It is doing occultations to get the sun between the probe and the sun have Pluto through. That happened this morning at 430. Its long-term mission is to take a look at what's out there further. 5 to 6 years from now, there's an opportunity to look at a couple of other objects. Since Pluto is 5,000,000,000 miles away, do we know yet whether or not new horizons has actually been able to do the things it's supposed to be doing when it flies by Pluto? Last night at 1130, and this evening at approximately 602 San Diego time somewhere between Darren 658 and successfully moved past the Pluto system. We've been getting low resolution and him color images from the spacecraft. At the expense in terms of time, especially the color was because that's not because it takes for pictures to be sent back in order to get a good color shot. Domitian actually is going to take 18 months after it flies by to send all of its data back. We expect in September to December timeframe to see releases of information, Dr. will have mentioned she's going to be a part of a panel that should see quite a bit of information coming back in December. What are you expecting to see? This sounds silly but we are excited to see anything. Even with the Hubble space telescope is actually only a few axles across. After this point we can tell it has blotchy dark regions. Now we're seeing craters and smooth icy regions and place that show actual theology going on. It also feels like everything is new. There are actual questions scientists have had. Disputes over Pluto that you expect these photos will resolve? They will be helpful. You have ideas of what the composition service is. Will be in much better location to have the ability to say this is methane etc. We know Pluto has a highly seasonable atmosphere. Will be able to get direct composition. We would love to know if something else has an atmosphere. Because these are so small and so far out there, a lot of these detections are so difficult to do from the earth. This is spacecraft also has a visible light infrared and ultraviolet capability, we're getting a lot of data back on once. Also collects plasma information. It has an additional detector called the student dust collector, he was built by students. It was like and knows that sniffs to see what the dust is. Another thing I read is that NASA has positioned new horizons so you can use reflected light from the moon Charon to take pictures. Why is that important? The sun is on one side, Pluto is turned over 120° on its side, we don't see the southern side. Once the spacecraft is moved past Pluto, Karen's light give us an opportunity to get a look at what's there. You need that like to bounce off the main. One of the things I read is questions like does it all on Pluto? Do the gases breeze when they are not exposed to the sun? Are those some of the questions that may be answered? Yes. Last night, Dr. Agnello came back and said they had determined Pluto has almost a pure nitrogen atmosphere and a particular temperature, that's going to become ice and fall back to the planet. This may give us an opportunity to determine when that will occur. Does a great deal of anticipation among astronomers. It's part of that the idea that what we learned from Pluto will also give us more information about these other dwarf planets in the farthest reaches of the solar system? Yes. Pluto is considered the largest archetype of a certain type of object in this formally unexplored part of the solar system. What we learn from Pluto shall help us quite a bit. We are already seeing from Karen that there's color variations. Even to objects so close to Heather is so important to hopefully continue the new horizons mission past Pluto to explore those. What I am betting is just like all the different plans are different, and all the moves are different, we will see that same diversity as well. This new horizons spacecraft is living at 31,000 miles an hour. It's not going to be -- this supply by. It's not going to orbit Pluto. Is this enough time? For the spacecraft to take enough photos of Pluto? The planetary scientists would like to have a lot more time. Given the technology they had now, cost bounces and other issues, it was impossible to build a craft at the time it was launched that could go into orbit. The flyby, it's sad it's only there for four hours but exciting part is it will still have no power for another 20 to 25 years to provide additional research and return information from objects that are further out. With two targets when it's five years away and when that six years away. This enough fuel on board to make the spacecraft make it till 1° change in its trajectory towards one of those objects. We could see more data five years from now. That's what's headed with at least Pluto. Use that there are more years left in spacecraft. Any further plans awaiting horizons may eventually lead us to the With NASA, it's one step at a time. There may be a follow-up mission after that, we don't have money at this stage to do the hollow one observation I imagine -- It's already at their With this science data, why not take advantage of it. Lisa, tell us about the Pluto event type of the Will be giving you an idea were Pluto is up in the sky. You can't see it with the naked eye but it's in the consolation. You can roughly wave at Pluto. They will talk out about the history of Pluto we've known about soap are and what the new horizons mission has told us so far. I don't excited today but the Pluto encounter started a few months ago and we have been getting better and better images every day. It has been fascinating, is seeing a get bigger and more detailed everyday Where the reasons is taking so long for the data to come back is that this is a once-in-a-lifetime live I basically forgot you have all these different attachments on the spacecraft, they are all taking a lot of data today. Its focus on using old estimates it candidates taking more data than it can send back all at once. That's why we don't hear anything from it because it's using all of the energy it has been getting information to send back. The radio edition is fixed, during the time we take observations is impossible to point back to Earth the same data. It's like don't bother me, I am busy. The eight days reading into it and a nine days weeding out, it's actually in a full science mode and very little information flow the sent back. Each day that 10 minutes of data will be returned. After that period ends, it will go into a mode where it will continuously broadcast back for 18 months. Pluto is all over the place today. How long does the public interest in a project like this last. It seems to flare up and then somewhat dissipate. 72 hours. [ Laughter ] Is that demoralizing? No. The mission will continue. We get to speak each month to different audiences and bring out new things that are there. Next year there will be the Juno mission and will have another round of 72 hours to discuss that. Spacecraft is on its way to Jupiter. It's going to spend a year, 24 orbits around the planet's going close of studies. It's the first spacecraft that will actually go into orbit and do that study so we will be back to talk about that next year. I want to thank you both so much. Jerry Hilburn, astronomer, NASA Solar System Ambassador Program And Lisa Will,astronomy and physics professor, San Diego City College; resident astronomer, Reuben H. Fleet Science Center second I would let everyone know that the Fleet Fly-By Party is from 6:30 to 8 p.m. in the Heikoff Giant Dome Theater , if you need more information is on our website, if you need more information is on our website@KPBS.org

By NASA's calculations we've made it to Pluto. The moment of closest approach for the New Horizons spacecraft came around 4:49 a.m. PST Tuesday, culminating an epic journey from planet Earth that spanned more than 3 billion miles and 9½ years.

As NASA scientists celebrate the New Horizons spacecraft mission to Pluto, San Diego astronomers join KPBS Midday Edition to weigh in on what the fly-by and close-up views could reveal about the farthest planetary mass in our solar system.

A "Fly-By Party" is planned Tuesday night at the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center with a live feed of events at NASA's Jet Propulsion lab inside the Heikoff Giant Dome Theater. NASA Solar System Ambassador Jerry Hilburn and Fleet resident astronomer Dr. Lisa Will will be on hand to answer questions. They will also join KPBS Midday Edition Tuesday at noon for a discussion on the mission, what people may learn about Pluto and what is next for New Horizons.

Fleet Fly-By Party

Reuben H. Fleet Science Center

6:30 to 8 p.m. in the Heikoff Giant Dome Theater

Ticket information available online.

"This is truly a hallmark in human history," said John Grunsfeld, NASA's science mission chief. "It's been an incredible voyage."

Based on everything NASA knows, New Horizons was pretty much straight on course for the historic encounter, sweeping within 7,700 miles of Pluto at 31,000 mph. It actually happened 72 seconds earlier and about 40 miles closer than anticipated.

But official confirmation of the flyby wasn't due until Tuesday night, 13 nerve-racking hours later. That's because NASA wants New Horizons taking pictures of Pluto, its jumbo moon Charon and its four little moons during this critical time, not gabbing to Earth.

In a cosmic coincidence, the encounter occurred 50 years after Mariner 4's flyby of Mars that yielded the first close-up pictures of the red planet.

"I think it's fitting that on the 50th anniversary we complete the initial reconnaissance of the planets with the exploration of Pluto," said principal scientist Alan Stern.

The United States is now the only nation to visit every single planet in the solar system. Pluto was No. 9 in the lineup when New Horizons departed Cape Canaveral, Florida, on Jan. 19, 2006, but was demoted seven months later to dwarf status. Scientists in charge of the $720 million mission, as well as NASA brass, hope the new observations will restore Pluto's honor.

"It's a huge morning, a huge day not just for NASA but for the United States," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said from NASA headquarters in Washington.

NASA marked the moment live on TV, broadcasting from flight operations at Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory, the spacecraft's developer and manager.

Inside "countdown central" in Laurel, Maryland, hundreds jammed together to share in the final minutes, including the two children of the late American astronomer who discovered Pluto in 1930, Clyde Tombaugh. The actual flight control room was empty save for a worker sweeping up; the spacecraft was preprogrammed for the flyby and there was nothing anyone could do at that point but join in the celebration.

The crowd waved U.S. flags and counted down the seconds, screaming, cheering and applauding. Chants of "USA!" broke out.

At a news conference afterward, Grunsfeld, Stern and mission operations manager Alice Bowman unveiled a picture of Pluto taken just Monday. The icy, impacted world — a fusion of peach and brassy colors with bright spots at points northward, including the now-famous heart, and darker areas around the equator — drew oohs and aahs.

Even better pictures will start "raining" down to the ground beginning Wednesday, Stern said, "a data waterfall." But the planetary scientist at Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, cautioned everyone to "stay tuned" until New Horizons phones home Tuesday night. Only then will anyone know whether the spacecraft survived its passage through the Pluto system, five moons included.

"Hopefully it did, and we're counting on that," Stern told journalists. "But there's a little bit of drama because this is true exploration. New Horizons is flying into the unknown."

It takes 4½ hours for signals to travel one-way between New Horizons and flight controllers, the speed of light. The last time controllers heard from the spacecraft was Monday night, according to plan, and everything looked good.

New Horizons already has beamed back the best-ever images of Pluto and big moon Charon. Pluto also has four little moons, all of which were expected to come under New Horizons' scrutiny.

Bowman said she has to pinch herself as she reflects on all the mission's accomplishments.

"To see Pluto be revealed just before our eyes, it's just fantastic," she said. She considers New Horizons like her own child and is simultaneously "nervous and proud" as she waits to hear back from it.

NASA's planetary science director, Jim Green, also is "on pins and needles." During its approach to Pluto, New Horizons scouted for any dangerous debris out there that could wipe out the mission.

"They're confident the way is clear, but you know, he said, throwing up his hands, "we're moving into the unknown. You never can tell."

The odds of a devastating blow, at this late point, are said to be an extremely low one or two in 10,000.

Pictures from the actual flyby, won't be transmitted until well afterward so the seven science instruments can take full advantage of the encounter. In fact, it will take more than a year to get back all the data — 16 full months, or until October or November 2016.

On the eve of the flyby, NASA announced that Pluto is actually bigger than anyone imagined, thanks to measurements made by the spacecraft, a baby grand piano-size affair. It's about 50 miles bigger, for a grand total of 1,473 miles in diameter. But that's still puny by solar-system standards: Pluto is just two-thirds the size of Earth's moon.

Thanks to New Horizons, Pluto is now confirmed to be the largest object in the so-called Kuiper Belt, considered the third zone of the solar system after the inner rocky planets and outer gaseous ones. This unknown territory is a shooting gallery of comets and other small bodies.

If a mission extension is granted, New Horizons will seek out another Kuiper Belt object before heading out of the solar system — for good.

Continued success and interest, meanwhile, could lead to a Pluto-orbiting mission, Green said.

"These are the events that catch our imaginations and remind us why we must continue investing in planetary science and NASA's mission of space exploration," Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, said in a statement.

One Giant Step For Space Exploration As Pluto Gets Its Close-Up