New Horizons Spacecraft Produces Detailed New Photos of Pluto

Danny May, Staff Writer

Back in July, NASA conducted a flyby mission of Pluto as part of New Horizons. Just a few days ago, detailed color photos from the flyby were released that display the terrain of the dwarf planet in fine detail. These new images are thought to be the best and most accurate Pluto photographs that humans may see for decades, and serve to give scientists a high resolution view of the geology of Pluto. However, transmission of data from the spacecraft is not a quick process. As of July, the spacecraft was about 4.5 light hours from Earth, and the data transmission rate was only 1 to 2 kb/s. Because of this, the transmission of all of the data from Pluto will take about 16 months to fully come in.

The New Horizons spacecraft was launched on January 20th, 2006. It is  roughly the size of a piano and weighs about 1,054 pounds. The current primary goal is to gather information about the formation of the Pluto system, the Kuiper belt, and details about the formation and transformations of the early solar system. According to NASA, some of the details of the mission of New Horizons is to map the surface of Pluto and Charon, characterize the geology and morphology of Pluto and Charon, and characterize the neutral atmosphere of Pluto and its escape rate. These new images are a huge accomplishment in the field of space exploration, and bring us another step closer to understanding our solar system.

The current status of the spacecraft is that it has completed the science of its closest approach phase. The spacecraft is now heading in the direction of the constellation sagittarius, and has reported that it is still healthy and within the travel margins. However, New Horizons is not fully done. As an extended mission, the spacecraft is travelling towards the Kuiper Belt, attempting a flyby of a Kuiper Belt Object or KBO. This project has proved to be a success so far and shows a promising future for what data NASA will be able to collect from space.

Years ago, who would have thought that humans would be able to see what the surface of a different planet over 4 billion miles away looks like up close? At the rate our space technology is growing, one can only imagine what else we will discover years from now.