The New Horizons Pluto mission is a big deal. Here are Some reasons why


SOURCE : vox.com 

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft is about to show us an alien world for the first time. At precisely 7:49 am ET on Tuesday, the probe will become the first spacecraft to fly by Pluto.

New Horizons has been en route for nine years, traveling more than 3 billion miles. The flyby will be over in a matter of minutes, as the probe frantically takes hundreds of photos and collects data on Pluto’s atmosphere, geology, and moons. All this data will be enormously valuable to scientists as they seek to understand our solar system and how it formed billions of years ago.

More than anything, this mission is about broadening our horizons — taking in just a little bit more of the impossibly vast universe we live in.

1) We’ve never seen Pluto before

Pluto feels familiar. It’s easy to imagine the small, frigid rock, millions of miles from the sun and covered in ice.

But what you’re picturing in your head when you think about Pluto is probably an artist’s illustration. Until very recently, we didn’t even know exactly what color it was — and the best photos we had of Pluto looked like this:

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New Horizons is going to change that in a very big way. Already, as it’s closed in on Pluto, it’s given us way better photos than ever before:

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Pluto (right) and its moon Charon, as seen by New Horizons on July 11. (NASA-JHUAPL-SWRI)

The high-resolution photos to come will give us detailed topographical maps, just like those provided by the satellites that orbit Earth. They could reveal mountains, ice caps, volcanoes, or even an ocean of liquid water under the ice. “Who knows what kind of bizarre things we’ll find up close?” Stern said.

2) This mission will remind you how vast space really is

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Earth, as seen by the Voyager spacecraft, from more than 4 billion miles away.

We spend our entire lives on the surface of Earth — so it’s hard to really grasp how far away Pluto truly is from us.

But as an analogy, think of Earth as a basketball. By comparison, Pluto would be a little larger than a golf ball. But if you wanted to keep the scale constant, you’d have to put that golf ball incredibly far away: 50 to 80 miles (depending on its location in orbit). This mission, like many activities in space, is a good reminder of how vast our corner of the universe is — and how absurdly tiny our entire earthly realm of experience is by comparison.

And it’s not just the size of space that boggles the mind. It’s also the timescale on which everything occurs. Pluto takes 248 Earth years to orbit the sun. To put it another way, the entirety of US history has occurred during a single Plutonian orbit.

3) We won’t get many more missions like this for a while

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There’s a mission to Europa planned, but it won’t reach the moon for a decade or more.

The past few decades have been filled with all sorts of fascinating missions to the planets, moons, asteroids, and comets of our solar system — uncrewed probes sent every few years, run by trained scientists, and supported by government funding.

But the sad truth is that this era is largely drawing to a close. As David W. Brown writes in an article on the dark future of American space exploration, “There is nothing budgeted in the pipeline to take its place. Yesterday invested in today. But we are not investing in tomorrow.”

This is the result of cutbacks to NASA’s planetary exploration budget. The OSIRIS-REx probe will launch next year, to travel to an asteroid and bring back a sample, but it won’t return until 2023. Meanwhile, a mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa is in the works, but it likely won’t be launched until 2025 at the earliest, and wouldn’t reach Europa until the 2030s.

In other words: Enjoy this brief flyby. It’s going to be a while before any NASA probe visits a new world.

4)This is a staggering technological achievement

t’s hard to appreciate just how difficult it is to send a spacecraft to Pluto. But think of it this way: because it’s so incredibly far away, it took New Horizons nine years to cover the 3-billion-mile trip there — which means the craft is using decade-old technology, traveling a route that was calculated years ago.

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New Horizons’ trajectory through the solar system.

Despite this, NASA engineers managed to get the tiny probe — about the size and shape of a grand piano — to an incredibly precise spot in space, using Jupiter’s gravity as a slingshot to accelerate it outward and a few thruster burns over the years to keep the probe on track.

Along the way, they had to worry about potentially damaging debris nearby Pluto — as well as a scary software glitch this past weekend, which was, thankfully, resolved. Now New Horizons is going to fly within 7,750 miles of Pluto, coming closer than its moons.

Because New Horizons is traveling at such a high speed (about 31,000 miles per hour) and can’t slow down, the flyby will be over in a matter of minutes — fording it to collect all its data in a tiny window of time.

And receiving all that data is another huge challenge. Because New Horizons is so far away, it takes about 4.5 hours for any data it sends back to reach Earth. And the signal is so faint that NASA has to use 200-foot-wide radio dishes (one each in Australia, California, and Spain) to pick it up. This means an extremely low rate of data transmission: about 1 kilobit per second, more than 50 times slower than a 56k modem from the ’90s. It takes more than 42 minutes for New Horizons to fully transmit an image that’s 1024 pixels wide.

If you haven’t been paying attention so far, now’s the time to start. This is a really big deal.

NASA clears Orion spacecraft for first test flight next week


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NASA’s newest deep space capsule Orion, is getting ready for its first uncrewed test flight, launching next week.

The space agency and Lockheed Martin – the company that manufactured Orion for NASA – have given the “go” to proceed with the capsule’s robotic test on Dec. 4. The company and agency finished their “Flight Readiness Review” on Nov. 20, clearing the way for Orion’s first test flight.

“The FRR is a rigorous assessment of the spacecraft, its systems, mission operations and support functions needed to successfully complete Orion’s first voyage to space,” NASA officials said in a statement.

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Orion Spacecraft illustration  (Click Image to Download)

NASA officials hope that Orion will eventually be able to take humans to deep space destinations like Mars, but first, the capsule’s systems need to get through a series of flight tests starting with the first one next week.

Orion is scheduled to launch to space atop a United Launch Alliance Delta 4 Heavy rocket from Florida. The spacecraft is outfitted with more than 1,000 sensors to gather data about how the capsule performs under the harsh conditions in space and during re-entry.

In total, the test flight should last about 4.5 hours. Orion will make two orbits of Earth with one of them taking it as high as 3,600 miles from the planet. The spacecraft will gain speed as it comes back down from its position in orbit, before re-entering the atmosphere. Orion’s heat shield is the largest of its kind ever manufactured, and the test will help scientists see if it can efficiently protect the capsule during re-entry.

The test — called Exploration Flight Test-1 — will also help officials check out Orion’s parachute system, designed to slow down the spacecraft before its expected splashdown in the Pacific Ocean. Officials will be on hand to fish Orion out of the ocean after it returns to Earth.

NASA, U.S. Navy and Lockheed Martin officials have started to prepare for activities after splashdown.

“At Naval Base San Diego, two Navy ships, the USS Anchorage and the USNS Salvor, have been outfitted with the necessary tools and equipment needed to return Orion to land after the flight test,” NASA officials said in the same statement.

Source : Foxnews

NASA contracts two firms to work on asteroid mining


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NASA has contracted with two private space firms to prepare for and ultimately execute missions to land on and mine asteroids for valuable resources. The contracts, forged between NASA and both Deep Space Industries and Planetary Resources, are further evidence of a the kinds of new and interesting partnerships as space exploration increasingly becomes the domain of private industry.
Both companies have been forging plans to launch asteroid-landing probes for months-long stints on near Earth objects — with the aim of extracting valuable resources. Although such expeditions could theoretically return to Earth with valuable minerals, the financial viability of the concept relies on the prospects of supplying other space missions with an extracted assets. That’s where NASA comes in.

With a spate of deep space missions planned in the coming century, NASA would be able to save time and money by supplying some of those missions (including International Space Station expeditions) with vital resources mined from asteroids — water, silicate, carbonaceous minerals and more.

“Deep Space brings commercial insight to NASA’s asteroid planning, because our business is based on supplying what commercial customers in Earth orbit need to operate, as well as serving NASA’s needs for its moon and Mars exploration,” Deep Space CEO Daniel Faber said in a press release earlier this year. “The fuel, water, and metals that we will harvest and process will be sold into both markets, making available industrial quantities of material for expanding space applications and services.”

The fuel it takes to rocket out of the grasp of Earth’s gravity makes launching anything — much less a massive cargo ship — exceptionally expensive. By contrast, asteroids have minuscule centers of gravity, making coming and going from them much less fuel (and cost) intensive.

“Right now it costs $17 million per ton to get anything up to geosynchronous orbit,” David Gump, vice chairman of Deep Space, told The Boston Globe. “If we can beat whatever that price is in 2022, we’ll have a big market.”

“Asteroids hold the resources necessary to enable a sustainable, even indefinite presence in space — for science, commerce and continued prosperity here on Earth,” Chris Lewicki, president and chief engineer of Planetary Resources, echoed in a statement released by NASA last week.

As part of Planetary Resources’ ongoing cooperation with NASA’s asteroid exploration efforts, the company will help sort through the near Earth object-finding algorithms being submitted by citizen scientists as part of the agency’s Asteroid Data Hunter challenge.

“By harnessing the public’s interest in space and asteroid detection, we can more quickly identify the potential threats, as well as the opportunities,” Lewicki added.

Following in the wake of European Space Agency’s history-making comet landing, NASA will attempt to land its own spacecraft, the OSIRIS-Rex, on an asteroid named Bennu in September 2016.

Source : upi.com