The New Horizons spacecraft was launched in January 2006. It coasted by Pluto 14 July 2015 giving us our first close views of the dwarf planet and its moons. The largest moon is named Charon. Previous posts highlighting events of the mission are found here.
NASA released two virtual flyovers of Pluto and Charon on 14 July 2017. They were made using data and elevation models from the mission. Digital mapping and rendering were performed by Paul Schenk and John Blackwell of the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston. From the press release of the Pluto flyover:
“This dramatic Pluto flyover begins over the highlands to the southwest of the great expanse of nitrogen ice plain informally named Sputnik Planitia. The viewer first passes over the western margin of Sputnik, where it borders the dark, cratered terrain of Cthulhu Macula, with the blocky mountain ranges located within the plains seen on the right. The tour moves north past the rugged and fractured highlands of Voyager Terra and then turns southward over Pioneer Terra — which exhibits deep and wide pits — before concluding over the bladed terrain of Tartarus Dorsa in the far east of the encounter hemisphere.”
From the press release of the Charon flyover:
“The exciting flight over Charon begins high over the hemisphere New Horizons saw on its closest approach, then descends over the deep, wide canyon of Serenity Chasma. The view moves north, passing over Dorothy Gale crater and the dark polar hood of Mordor Macula. The flight then turns south, covering the northern terrain of Oz Terra before ending over the relatively flat equatorial plains of Vulcan Planum and the “moated mountains” of Clarke Montes.”
What lies ahead for the New Horizons spacecraft? It is headed for a 1 Jan 2019 flyby of an ancient Kuiper Belt object known as 2014 MU69. The belt contains Pluto and many other smaller bodies we know little about. It extends as a disk out to about 50x the radius of Earth’s orbit. This flyby will give scientists a closer look at one of these small bodies.
On 17 July 2017, NASA set 24 telescopes in a line across the cold plains of Argentina. Their goal was to observe a specific star as MU69 passed in front of it and caused it to dim momentarily. Five of the telescopes detected the dimming. The data gave the scientists a much better idea of the size (likely 14-25 miles or 22-40 kilometers across) and specific direction of MU69. The trajectory of New Horizons will be adjusted for a more precise passage as it encounters the body of MU69. Here are details of that successful detection.
A friend gave me this commemorative stamp set of the New Horizons mission.