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From an article posted on the New Horizons website on November 5, 2015.

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft has successfully completed record-setting maneuvers that have set it on course to reach 2014 MU69, which orbits in the Kuiper Belt, in January 2019.

The four propulsive maneuvers were the most distant trajectory corrections ever performed by any spacecraft. The fourth and final maneuver started at approximately 1:15 p.m. EST on Wednesday, Nov. 4, and lasted just under 20 minutes. Data indicating that this final maneuver had been successful reached spacecraft operators at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland, just before 7 p.m. EST on Wednesday.

Credit: The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory

Credit: The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory

The maneuvers didn’t speed or slow the spacecraft, rather they “pushed” New Horizons sideways, giving it a 57 meter per second (128 mile per hour) nudge toward the KBO. 2014 MU69 is around 1 billion miles beyond Pluto, and the aim is for New Horizons to come within even closer range of MU69 than it did to Pluto on July 14, 2015.

The New Horizons team will submit a formal proposal to NASA for the extended mission to 2014 MU69 in early 2016. Curt Niebur, New Horizons program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington said that “this is another milestone in the life of an already successful mission that’s returning exciting new data every day. These course adjustments preserve the option of studying an even more distant object in the future, as New Horizons continues its remarkable journey.”

At the time of November 5th’s maneuver, New Horizons was approximately 84 million miles beyond Pluto and nearly 3.2 billion miles from Earth. The spacecraft is now 895 million miles from MU69, speeding at more than 32,000 miles per hour toward deeper space.

For more information on Kuiper Belt objects, see Chapter 8.2 (p. 202-204) of The Cosmos.

For the original article on the New Horizons website, click here.

From a press release originally published on the John Hopkins Laboratory website on October 15, 2015.

Following the first exploration of the Pluto system in history, NASA’s New Horizons team have published their first research paper detailing their findings of the distant planet.

The paper, entitled “The Pluto System: Initial Results from its Exploration by New Horizons,” describes an unusual heart-shaped region, intriguing moons, and a surprising degree of diversity and complexity in the Pluto System.

Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

Team members believe that some of the processes on Pluto have occurred relatively recently, including those which involve the water-ice rich crust that they have discovered. This raises fundamental questions about how small planets remain active billions of years after their formation.

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft made it to within 7,750 miles of Pluto’s surface at its point of closest approach, gathering so much data that scientists won’t see the extent of it for another year.

Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

Jim Green, director of planetary science at NASA Headquarters in Washington, describes the mission as only the beginning. “The New Horizons mission completes our initial reconnaissance of the solar system, giving humanity our first look at this fascinating world and its system of moons. New Horizons is not only writing the textbook on the Pluto system, it’s serving to inspire current and future generations to keep exploring — to keep searching for what’s beyond the next hill.”

For more information on what we know so far about the dwarf planet right on the fringes of our Solar system, see Chapter 8.1 of The Cosmos.

Link: for the original press release, click here.

From an article published August 28, 2015 on The New York Times website:

Credit: Alex Parker, via NASA

Credit: Alex Parker, via NASA

Fresh from its Pluto flyby in July 2015, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft has a new mission. The next destination for the probe is to be a much smaller ice ball in the outer Solar System, almost a billion miles beyond Pluto.

If NASA approves the extension to the mission, the spacecraft will visit the icy body known as 2014 MU69 in 2019 to capture photographs and data, in a similar way as for the examination of Pluto. While the vistas of this object would not be as impressive as those of Pluto, it would provide a close-up look at another piece of debris beyond Neptune, part of what is known as the Kuiper belt (see Section 8.2, pp. 202-204 in The Cosmos).

NASA has already examined smaller icy objects like comets, some of which originate in the Kuiper belt, but the flyby of 2014 MU69 will “connect the dots”, says S. Alan Stern, New Horizons’ principal investigator. As an intermediate-size Kuiper belt object, the gap in our knowledge between smaller icy objects and the far greater Pluto will aim to be filled.

The New Horizons spacecraft is to adjust course through a series of four thruster firings in late October and early November. New Horizons would also make more distant measurements of 20 other Kuiper belt objects en route to 2014 MU69.

For more information on spacecrafts flying by comets, see Section 8.3f, pp. 210-214 in The Cosmos.

Link: Full article here

From a NASA press release: After a decade-long journey through our solar system, New Horizons made its closest approach to Pluto Tuesday, July 14, about 7,750 miles above the surface — roughly the same distance from New York to Mumbai, India – making it the first-ever space mission to explore a world so far from Earth.



The Pluto story began only a generation ago when young Clyde Tombaugh was tasked to look for Planet X, theorized to exist beyond the orbit of Neptune. He discovered a faint point of light that we now see as a complex and fascinating world. New Horizons’ flyby of the dwarf planet and its five known moons is providing an up-close introduction to the solar system’s Kuiper Belt, an outer region populated by icy objects ranging in size from boulders to dwarf planets. Kuiper Belt objects, such as Pluto, preserve evidence about the early formation of the solar system. New Horizons’ almost 10-year, three-billion-mile journey to closest approach at Pluto took about one minute less than predicted when the craft was launched in January 2006. The spacecraft threaded the needle through a 60-by-90 kilometer window in space – the equivalent of a commercial airliner arriving no more off target than the width of a tennis ball. Because New Horizons is the fastest spacecraft ever launched – hurtling through the Pluto system at more than 30,000 mph, a collision with a particle as small as a grain of rice could have incapacitated the spacecraft.

Meanwhile, on June 30 in New Zealand, author Jay M. Pasachoff and his team of scientists and students from Williams College, M.I.T. and Lowell Observatory successfully observed a two-minute occultation of Pluto, where the dwarf planet’s 1,500-mile-wide silhouette passed between Earth and a star trillions of miles away in precise line with the Mount John Observatory on New Zealand’s South Island. Read more details via JMP’s opinion piece in the NY Times, below.

Links: NASA press release; image gallery via the NY Times; Jay M. Pasachoff’s article in NY Times; JMP’s scientific results from his occultation observations; coverage of JMP’s NZ occultation trip via S&T and

From a JPL press release, August 21, 2014:

NASA’s Voyager 2 spacecraft gave humanity its first close-up look at Neptune and its moon Triton in the summer of 1989. Like an old film, Voyager’s historic footage of Triton has been “restored” and used to construct the best-ever global color map of this strange moon. The map, produced by Paul Schenk, a scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, has also been used to make a movie recreating that historic Voyager encounter, which took place 25 years ago, on August 25, 1989. (See pp. 190-192)

Map of Triton

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Lunar & Planetary Institute

The new Triton map has a resolution of 1,970 feet (600 meters) per pixel. The colors have been enhanced to bring out contrast but are a close approximation to Triton’s natural colors. Voyager’s “eyes” saw in colors slightly different from human eyes, and this map was produced using orange, green and blue filter images.

In 1989, most of the northern hemisphere was in darkness and unseen by Voyager. Because of the speed of Voyager’s visit and the slow rotation of Triton, only one hemisphere was seen clearly at close distance. The rest of the surface was either in darkness or seen as blurry markings.

The production of the new Triton map was inspired by anticipation of NASA’s New Horizons encounter with Pluto, coming up a little under a year from now. Among the improvements on the map are updates to the accuracy of feature locations, sharpening of feature details by removing some of the blurring effects of the camera, and improved color processing.

Although Triton is a moon of a planet and Pluto is a dwarf planet, Triton serves as a preview of sorts for the upcoming Pluto encounter. Although both bodies originated in the outer solar system, Triton was captured by Neptune and has undergone a radically different thermal history than Pluto. Tidal heating has likely melted the interior of Triton, producing the volcanoes, fractures and other geological features that Voyager saw on that bitterly cold, icy surface.

Pluto is unlikely to be a copy of Triton, but some of the same types of features may be present. Triton is slightly larger than Pluto, has a very similar internal density and bulk composition, and has the same low-temperature volatiles frozen on its surface. The surface composition of both bodies includes carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, methane and nitrogen ices.

Voyager also discovered atmospheric plumes on Triton, making it one of the known active bodies in the outer Solar System, along with objects such as Jupiter’s moon Io and Saturn’s moon Enceladus. Scientists will be looking at Pluto next year to see if it will join this list. They will also be looking to see how Pluto and Triton compare and contrast, and how their different histories have shaped the surfaces we see.

Links: the full JPL press release; Triton movie.

An article in New Scientist summarizes work by Michael Wong at Caltech, published in the journal Icarus, about how Titan keeps its surface methane liquid.

Saturn’s largest moon may once have been a giant snowball. Titan is already a frigid moon made mostly of ice. But methane gas in its atmosphere keeps the surface just warm enough for a scattering of lakes filled with liquid hydrocarbons. Scientists have puzzled over Titan’s atmospheric methane because the molecule is easily broken down by sunlight. Calculations suggest that all the methane Titan seems to possess should have been used up within tens of millions of years – a blip in the moon’s roughly 4-billion-year lifetime.

Adding to the mystery, the methane breakdown creates other compounds that rain over the surface, helping to fill the lakes. If used-up methane was replaced, this process would happen constantly, so Titan should be covered not by lakes, but by a global ocean hundreds of metres deep.

Michael Wong at Caltech says snowballs may be the missing piece. Scientists suspect Earth went through a snowball phase about 2 billion years ago, when the planet became covered in ice. A similar event could have taken place on Titan, says Wong. Methane levels may rise and fall if the gas is periodically released from inside the moon. If at some point the methane dropped by a factor of 100, temperatures would fall, and surface liquids would freeze over. A different mix of compounds would also be produced in the atmosphere. So this cold snap would mean the moon’s surface should host lots of compounds called nitriles, which would be solid rather than creating an ocean.

The New Horizons mission to Pluto could offer early clues. Like Titan, Pluto has an atmosphere that is mostly nitrogen with some methane. Pluto’s atmosphere is much thinner and colder, but the physics are similar enough that examining its composition could boost the snowball model.

Links: the New Scientist report; Icarus article.