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Waspie_Dwarf

At Pluto Moons and Debris May Be Hazardous

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At Pluto, Moons and Debris May Be Hazardous to New Horizons

Spacecraft Aims to Steer Clear of ‘Debris Zones’ During 2015 Flyby

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft is now almost seven years into its 9½-year journey across the solar system to explore Pluto and its system of moons. Just over two years from now, in January 2015, New Horizons will begin encounter operations, which will culminate in a close approach to Pluto on July 14, 2015, and the first-ever exploration of a planet in the Kuiper Belt.

As New Horizons has traveled through space, its science team has become increasingly aware of the possibility that dangerous debris may be orbiting in the Pluto system, putting the spacecraft and its exploration objectives into harm’s way.

“We’ve found more and more moons orbiting near Pluto — the count is now up to five,” says Alan Stern, principal investigator of the New Horizons mission and an associate vice president of the Space Science and Engineering Division at Southwest Research Institute (SwRI). “And we've come to appreciate that those moons, as well as those not yet discovered, act as debris generators, populating the Pluto system with shards from collisions between those moons and small Kuiper Belt objects.”

“Because our spacecraft is traveling so fast — more than 30,000 miles per hour — a collision with a single pebble, or even a millimeter-sized grain, could cripple or destroy New Horizons,” adds New Horizons Project Scientist Hal Weaver, of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), “so we need to steer clear of any debris zones around Pluto.”

The New Horizons team is already using every available tool — from sophisticated computer simulations of the stability of debris orbiting Pluto, to giant ground-based telescopes, to stellar occultation probes of the Pluto system, to the Hubble Space Telescope — to search for debris in orbit. At the same time, the team is plotting alternative, more distant courses through the Pluto system that would preserve most of the science mission but avert deadly collisions if the current flyby plan is found to be too hazardous.

“We’re worried that Pluto and its system of moons, the object of our scientific affection, may actually be a bit of a black widow,” says Stern, who discusses this aspect of the flyby today at the annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society's Division for Planetary Sciences in Reno, Nevada.

”We’re making plans to stay beyond her lair if we have to,” adds New Horizons Deputy Project Scientist Leslie Young, of Southwest Research Institute. “From what we have determined, we can still accomplish our main objectives if we have to fly a ‘bail-out trajectory’ to a safer distance from Pluto. Although we’d prefer to go closer, going farther from Pluto is certainly preferable to running through a dangerous gauntlet of debris (and possibly rings) that may orbit close to Pluto among its complex system of moons.”

“We may not know whether to fire our engines on New Horizons and bail out to safer distances until just 10 days before reaching Pluto, so this may be a bit of a cliffhanger,” Stern says. “Stay tuned.”

New Horizons is the first mission in NASA’s New Frontiers program. APL, located in Laurel, Md., built and operates the New Horizons spacecraft and manages the mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. SwRI led the payload/instrument development and leads the New Horizons science and mission teams from the Tombaugh Science Operations Center, located at SwRI facilities in Boulder, Colo. For more information, go to: http://pluto.jhuapl.edu/.

pluto20system.jpg

Field of Debris? The discovery of additional small moons has raised concerns about the possibility of rings or other debris structures in the Pluto system that can pose hazards to New Horizons. Even a millimeter-sized pebble’s impact at New Horizons’ flyby speed – about 14 kilometers per second, or more than 31,300 miles per hour – could seriously damage the spacecraft.

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Absolutly amazing....I hope it makes it....

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Karmatic retribution for being recategorized as a dwarf planet.

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Well, I quess at least they detected this potential threat before it was too late for the spacecraft.

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I have been waiting for this one ever sense they launched it. Would suck if it got destroyed before we got a good look at Pluto.

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Yeah, hopefully whatever adjusted pass-by they decide on to avoid dangerous debris will still enable imaging studies(visual, spectrum, radar) of enough resolution to gain further insight into Pluto and it's moons/space environment.

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Oh, hey, cool...I had forgotten we still had a little piece of a space program left. Soon as word gets out, we'll shut that down too.

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All that space junk will be from the inhabitants of Pluto . We`ll feel quite at home when we get there .

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I have faith that the 'bulging forehead' type guys and gals on this mission will get this sorted out in time... While it might sound quite crowded - and probably is on a system wide scale... on the human scale I'm sure there is plenty of room...

A friend of mine was convinced that we would never be able to get a probe past the asteroid belt (despite both Voyagers making it easily) because she though the belt was as insanely crowded as they are shown in sci-fi movies...

Like Hazzard said - I've been eagerly awaiting this probe to make it to Pluto... It's always been one of my favorite planets - ever since I was a kid...

Edited by Taun

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I remember staying behind after school to do Astronomy . Early 1960`s . My stance now is the same as then . Pluto is too far away to lend it brainroom . Far too many problems here to sort out . But there again , if the unwashed and starving don`t mind why should I ? And , no , my head has never been buried in the sand . NURSE............!

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I remember staying behind after school to do Astronomy . Early 1960`s . My stance now is the same as then . Pluto is too far away to lend it brainroom . Far too many problems here to sort out . But there again , if the unwashed and starving don`t mind why should I ? And , no , my head has never been buried in the sand . NURSE............!

I can kind of understand where you're coming from on this but, if humans didn't look beyond our problems "Here" until there were no problems "Here", we never would have evolved from the primordial sludge...

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But we are still in the sludge . Of course , it`s in a different form now . Today`s technology on earth has spread the sludge over a wider area hence giving the impression that it is shallower than before . Far better to be up to your knees than your neck . I pity my grandchildren and yours . Appreciate your reply . Kind regards .

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