Today the New Horizons spacecraft will cruise past Pluto, signaling back details of its surface and atmosphere from its closest flyby view. Pluto, which fell from planetary grace when it was demoted to an icy dwarf planet in the distant Kuiper Belt, is getting some respect. Will there be icy geysers? Craggy mountains? Planetary rings?
With the world paying attention, particularly NASA, MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS) researchers, and many other scientists, some early facts have emerged over the nine-year, three-billion-mile trek.
- Pluto has five moons.
- NASA applied nine trajectory maneuvers to keep New Horizon on course.
- Data takes 4.5 hours to return to Earth and flyby information will stream in through 2016.
- 28 watts can power all seven tiny research instruments on board.
MIT has a long history with Pluto already. The late EAPS Professor Jim Elliot was the pioneer of the stellar occultation technique that led to the discovery of Uranus’ rings and Pluto’s atmosphere, and reported in 2002 that its atmosphere was expanding. Professor Rick Binzel is a co-investigator on the New Horizons Team and an expert on near-Earth asteroids.
Research scientist Michael Person ’94, SM ’01, PhD ’06, was aboard SOFIA (Stratospheric Observatory For Infrared Astronomy), a high-altitude NASA plane racing over New Zealand on June 29 to catch a stellar occultation—a rare celestial alignment of Pluto passing directly between Earth and a distant star. Lecturer Amanda Bosh ’87, PhD ’94 was part of a team in Arizona that was triangulating the planetary and stellar positions. Read an interview with them on what they discovered from Pluto’s shadow.
Cathy Olkin ’88, PhD ’96, deputy project scientist and team leader for the PI on New Horizons, was interviewed about the countdown to Pluto. Here’s an excerpt:
EAPSpeaks: What excites you most about New Horizons?
Olkin: What excites me most is being one of the first people to get a close up look at this new realm of the solar system—somewhere we've never seen before. The New Horizons Pluto encounter will be the first time we have seen a Kuiper Belt object (KBO) close up. The Kuiper Belt is a completely different planetary regime from anything we have visited before—not the terrestrial planets, nor the gas giants we have become familiar with, but this great ring of hundreds of thousands of rocky and icy bodies out on the edge of our solar system: a great million-year-old debris field, the remnants from when our solar system formed. It can’t help but be a revelation to see this new class of bodies close up.
When I was an undergraduate at MIT in the 1980s, we didn't even understand that there were objects in the Kuiper Belt—people had postulated that maybe there was something out there but that wasn't confirmed until the discovery of the first KBO (after Pluto) in 1992.
Of course, Pluto, discovered in 1930 by American astronomer Clyde Tombaugh, famously was, for most of the 21st century, considered to be the solar system's 9th planet (if a slightly oddball one). It was only in 2006, with New Horizons already many millions of miles into its journey, that it was formally reclassified as a dwarf planet, but I still consider Pluto a planet and refer to it that way....
EAPSpeaks: What comes after Pluto?
Beyond the Pluto encounter, using the Hubble telescope, we have identified two other potential KBOs that we could fly by—one or the other, not both—and so once we have passed Pluto we will write an extended mission proposal to NASA which, if approved, will see New Horizons flying by a second target in approximately 2019....
New Horizons is also making history for the large number of women working on the project, says Fran Bagenal PhD '81 in a recent article in The Atlantic.
Update from Amanda Bosh:
Thank you for the wonderful article you posted on slice.mit.edu about the Pluto New Horizons mission! I can say that it has been an amazing few days here at JHU/APL, seeing all the new pictures come in from the spacecraft, and talking with everyone about Pluto!
There were other MIT alums on the project as well: Stacy Weinstein Weiss ’87 XVI worked on the spacecraft, Leslie Young PhD ’94 XII is a Deputy Project Scientist on New Horizons, and Bonnie Buratti SM ’74 XII is a New Horizons team member. Amanda Zangari PhD ’13 XII is a postdoc at New Horizons. Eliot Young SM ’87, ScD ’93 XII also worked on the project. I’m sure there are many more, these are just the ones I know about!
Read an update from Admissions blogger Erick Pinos.