It’s been a while since we’ve checked in with our long distance voyager friend New Horizons, currently en route to Pluto and scheduled to arrive there in 2015. With plenty of space stuff happening right here on Earth (as the millions of pictures of Endeavor in Los Angeles prove) and around the ISS, it’s easy to forget the very lonely explorers zipping through the vast emptiness out there.
Since New Horizons was launched in January 2006 (good heavens, has it really been this long?) new moons have been discovered around Pluto. Once thought of as a faraway outpost with a single moon, Pluto has shown itself to be a veritable little Kuiper Belt family.
The Kuiper Belt is a debris field that starts beyond the orbit of Neptune, and it contains anything from dust motes to dwarf planets. Yes, yes, it once even contained a real planet, until poor Pluto was demoted.... Either way, there’s quite a bit of stuff out there, although it’s nowhere near as dramatic as many science fiction shows will want you to believe, with nasty rocks tumbling along that some intrepid space explorer has to dodge like a jaywalker on an interstate. In reality, you could stand on a piece of debris all your life and never even see another rock!
However, if you’re zipping along at a blistering 31,300 mph, even a pea-sized object will obliterate you completely. And that’s what has the New Horizons scientists and engineers worried right now: where there’s one rock there are more, and the fact that two more moons were discovered since New Horizons’ launch, it stands to reason that there could be a lot more.
Since New Horizons is going so incredibly fast, there will simply be no dodging of any kind. What it can do, however, is alter its flight path ever so slightly, so that when it reaches Pluto it will be further away from the surface than originally planned.
Of course everyone would like to avoid this scenario, since you want to be as close as possible to your target to get the best science observations. But if you get smashed up by a pebble, the whole long trip was for nothing.
So, it’s a bit of a gamble. Trying to find the exact right distance from Pluto to minimize the risk of a collision while allowing for the best photo ops.
Sadly, New Horizons can’t step on the brakes and go into orbit and take its sweet time to observe Pluto: at the speed it’s going, it would have taken enormous amounts of fuel to slow it down enough for that.
Talk about exploration on the run!
For more up-to-date info on the New Horizons mission, check out the web site at http://pluto.jhuapl.edu/
Beate Czogalla is the professor of theater design in the Department of Theatre and Dance at Georgia College & State University. She has had a lifelong interest in space exploration and has been a solar system ambassador for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory/NASA for many years. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.