Science

NASA’s New Horizons Probe Adjusts Path To Pluto

The spacecraft made the latest maneuver in order to fine tune the path on which it will fly past dwarf planet Pluto.

New Horizons will make its flyby on 14 July, at a speed of almost 14 kilometers per second and an altitude of only 12,500 kilometers. By performing a 23-second thruster burn, mission controllers were able to slightly change its speed and arrival time, writes Jonathan Amos for the BBC.

NASA's New Horizons Probe Adjusts Path To Pluto

New Horizons flight path adjusted to allow better readings

In order to gather accurate scientific readings about Pluto and its moons, New Horizons must follow a specific path. The thruster burn will prevent the probe from arriving 20 seconds late, and 184 kilometers away from the target area. The route could still be subject to further change if obstacles such as icy debris present themselves.

Scientists at the New Horizons Mission Operations Center, based out of John Hopkins University, will soon issue commands to the probe which will govern its behavior during the flyby.

For now the craft continues to send back images and data as it approaches Pluto, and it recently detected frozen methane on the surface of the dwarf planet. The existence of frozen methane was first detected by earth-based telescopes around 40 years ago, but it has now been confirmed by New Horizons.

High-resolution pictures of Pluto

Pictures from the probe’s LORRI camera are published on a website almost every day. “We can see very large regional differences in brightness across the planet,” said principal investigator Alan Stern, at the Southwest Research Institute. “We see a polar cap. In fact, on Pluto’s moon Charon, we see an anti-polar cap – a dark cap, a dark pole, which is very unusual and we don’t understand it.”

This anti-polar cap and atmospheric studies of Pluto are just two areas of study for the team. On the day of the flyby, New Horizons will be gathering so much data that no pictures will be sent back to Earth. Scientists will have to wait until July 15 to see the first close-up images of Pluto.

The LORRI camera provides a resolution of 80 meters per pixel, which will allow detailed pictures. From a similar altitude above Earth, LORRI would be able to spot parks, runways and football stadiums.