Pluto Flyby, Comet Perihelion

The New Horizons probe flew by Pluto this week, as planned. “New Horizons had been instructed to spend the day gathering the maximum amount of data, and not communicating with Earth until it was beyond the Pluto system.

The few images from the navigation camera released so far aren’t extremely detailed. The real data will come later. In fact, it will take the rest of the year to return all the data collected Tuesday! That’s how far away, and how tiny the spacecraft and it’s radio are.

Congrats to the team, and let’s have some solid reports in the coming months.

The next cool thing will be Rosetta’s observations of 67P/CG as it sweeps through perihelion on 13 August. (Perihelion is actually not that close, about 1.24 AU—which is a good thing, otherwise I don’t think either the comet or Rosetta would survive for long.) This will be the first time we’ve been able to observe the surface and atmosphere of a comet as it passes through this dramatic lifecycle. Truly ground breaking science, whether or not there are photogenic images or not.

The orbit of Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko and its approximate location around perihelion, the closest the comet gets to the Sun. The positions of the planets are correct for 13 August 2015. Credit: ESA

Now that we have see the rugged and deeply fractured state of 67P/CG, we have to consider whether it might actually break up while Rosetta is watching. That might be cool to see, if possibly hazardous for the spacecraft.

Rosetta will continue to ride 67P/CG back out into the cold, returning data until at least September 2016 (the end of current funding). This will be an opportunity to observe the cooling and quieting of the comet, and to record “after” images to go with the “before” pictures from last year.

Out Ceres way (yet another good name for a band!), Dawn had a problem when it restarted the ion engine to move to the third, and lowest orbit. It is now still safely idling in the second orbit, being evaluated. We’ll see what happens—Dawn has performed incredibly well, and has been very robust. I expect that they’ll be able to reconfigure and proceed to the lower orbit, if later than originally planned.


Space Saturday

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