Faster than a speeding bullet...

Jul 13, 2015

Plutopalooza
Credit NASA

  This is “Looking UP! in southern Colorado,” from the Colorado Springs Astronomical Society. I’m Hal Bidlack, and there are lots of reasons to look up!

Something truly extraordinary is going to happen early tomorrow morning, something that is been planned for decades and will be over in a couple of hours – the New Horizons mission to Pluto! After more than nine years traveling through space, and covering over 3 billion miles, this piano – sized spacecraft is already changing what we thought we knew about Pluto. 

Since its discovery in 1930 by Clyde Tombaugh, Pluto has captured our imagination. Pluto itself is about about two thirds the size of Earth’s moon, and Pluto has at least five moons of its own.

Launched in 2006 on one of our most powerful rockets, the New Horizons spacecraft flew past the orbit of the moon in only eight hours. It took the Apollo astronauts three days to cover the same distance. But Pluto is almost unimaginably farther away, so the spacecraft had to achieve almost unimaginable speeds. Whipping past Jupiter for gravitational assist in 2007, New Horizons is now traveling toward Pluto at 31,000 miles per hour. That’s more than 8 ½ miles per second, 11 times faster than a rifle bullet.

Even with its tremendous speed, it is taken nearly a decade for New Horizons to reach Pluto. As a result of that speed, it’s going far too fast to slow down and enter an orbit around Pluto. After flying over 3 billion miles, New Horizons will zip pass Pluto, taking thousands of pictures and other scientific measurements, in just a couple of hours.

And all this starts happening around 6 am tomorrow, July 14, 2015. It will take over 16 months for the spacecraft to send back all the data gathered in those couple of hours. But as New Horizons passes less than 8000 miles from Pluto, in addition to its seven scientific instruments (one of which was made at the University of Colorado), it also carries a tiny vial with some of Clyde Tombaugh’s ashes, passing close to the object he discovered 85 years ago.

If you’d like to take a closer look at the Pluto or any of the other wonderful and amazing things in the sky, please visit KRCC.org or CSASTRO.org for a link to information on our monthly meetings and our free public star parties! 

This is Hal Bidlack for the Colorado Springs Astronomical Society, telling you to keep looking up, Southern Colorado!