pianohurtles through space, to play a tune of Pluto and the Kuiper Belt. Nobody knows what is out there, but we are about to find oout that space is boring, or holds hidden treasures that we have dreamt about; New Horizon’s artistic impression image; Credit: © NASA
In August, we passed Neptune. Tomorrow we near the “non-planet,” Pluto and in July, a probe passes Pluto and goes on to the Kuiper Belt. It is NASA’s baby, New Horizons, planned and launched 9 years ago, that is going to take the space headlines as its instruments do the dirty on the rocky Pluto. It all kicks off on the 15th January as the
piano nears its main objective. This is the first probe to near Pluto since Voyager 2 passed by Neptune, several billion miles away, in 1989. This investigation may even indicate that Triton, Neptune’s moon, was pulled in by the giant gas planet from a position near Pluto.
The instrumentation for Voyager was inferior to New Horizon’s payload which again could be much-improved by today’s technology. Techienews give their account of the inventory here. The computers alone could be much more efficient, but the necessary time-lapse in reaching these planets gives us no choice. There are 7 named pieces of apparatus, from Ralph to Alice. As we are on first name terms, RALPH is the imager and spectrometer to produce colour, composition and thermal maps and ALICE explores the UV in order to analyse the atmosphere around Pluto, Charon (possibly the other 4 satellites, mystically called Nix and Hydra, Kerberos and Styx) and any handy Kuiper Belt bits and pieces.
The rest of the
REX, which stands for radio science experiment and measures atmospheric composition as well as radiometry;
LORRI (long range reconnaissance imager) exploring distant objects on the far side of Pluto’s and providing high resolution images of the rocks:
SWAP, using spectrometry to investigate the solar wind and plasma interaction as well as the atmospheric escape rate;
PEPSSI, another spectrometer to look at Pluto’s energetic particle science. The composition and density of the plasma escaping from the non-planet could prove important for researchers;
SDC is the final instrument, simply measuring the amount of
space dust for the lengthy voyage through the solar system.
Let us hope these signals come in soon and copiously!
With no touchdown (hopefully!) those who are disappointed can relive our report on Mars’ amazing Curiosity landing here.
More on that soon.