• Blog Stats

    • 1,333,959 hits

The Big Day…

So… here we are… The Big Day… the day NASA’s NEW HORIZONS probe, after a journey of almost 5 billion miles and more than 9 years, flies past Pluto. I thought *yesterday* was exciting, but today will make it seem like a quiet sit down in the back of a church.

Well, kind of… there won’t actually be much to SEE today, at least not until the end of the day (UK time) because the probe will be too busy taking pictures and measurements today to send anything new back – basically NH will hang up a big “DO NOT DISTURB!” sign as it screams past Pluto and Charon – but we should see, at some point, images taken yesterday, and overnight, which will be fantastic, I’m sure.

It’s now 06.12 and as I type this we’re just 6 hours and 36 minutes away from NH’s closest approach to Pluto. At the moment it is swinging its cameras towards Pluto, ready to take a sequence of images which we will see tomorrow. How do I know this? Because I downloaded a brilliant computer app from NASA called “Eyes On The Solar System” which allows me to follow (not watch) the probe’s activities as they happen, in real-time. Of course, it’s just a simulation, but it is exquisitely detailed, and watching it is quite hypnotising – it’s a wonder I’m getting anything written at all! In a few hours time things will get rather busy “out there” but until then it should be relatively quiet. “Following the mission” will essentially mean following the Tweets and Facebook posts from people either on the mission itself or reporting on it, and there are a LOT of those!

Time, then, to look back on yesterday…

Yesterday was the day, I think, that Pluto finally became a world in its own right, because we saw the first really clear pictures of it, showing proper detail on its surface. I know, some images had been released before yesterday, but they were still really just light and dark, quite low resolution. But yesterday’s images – not just of Pluto but if Charon too – were way more detailed than anything seen before, and sitting here, watching them come in, and playing with them, I was like a dog in a lamp post factory.

In fact, two sets of images were released yesterday, separated by several hours. The first set really had people following the mission whooping with delight, because they showed real physical detail on the planet. Here’s the image of Charon, Pluto’s largest moon, that was released (left) and my processed take on it (right)…

collage charon july 13

Now even a quick look at that tells you that Charon has geological features on it. You can clearly see at least two big craters, with splashed of brighter material around them, and a canyon system on the far right. But it was images of Pluto we were all waiting to see, and when they were released… wow…

Pluto July 13 collage

Wonderful, just wonderful…!

At teatime there was a media briefing covered live on NASA TV, and a delighted panel of NH scientists gave an update on the mission status – basically, everything was fine, no last minute problems, the probe was on course and on track for its encounter. One highlight was the announcement that new measurements of Pluto by NH had allowed the team to measure its diameter more accurately than ever before, and those measurements suggested – not proved categorically – that Pluto was indeed larger than Eris, meaning Pluto regains its crown as the largest object in the Kuiper Belt!


Though, having said that, Eris hasn’t been measured as accurately, and it is more massive than Pluto, so I expect that debate will rumble on for a while yet.

Later in the evening a pair of new images of Pluto and Charon were released, and they showed even more detail. First, here’s the “raw” image of Charon (of course it’s not just a single image, it’s an image NASA produced from several images) with my own processed version next to it on its right…

collage charon teatime Jul 13

Big crater there, BIG crater! And lots of people looking at that image thought “Hmmm, that looks a LOT like one of the moons of Neptune…” Looking forward to clearer images of that later today.

But of course it was a new image of Pluto we were all looking forward to, and when it was released on the web it was a stunner…

Pluto NASA teatime raw

Oh, look at that… look down there at the bottom… SO much going on there, sunken areas, raised areas, layering, it’s a geological wonderland! And after a bit of processing even more detail came out…

Pluto teatime NASAbb

Now, by anyone’s standards that is a stunning image. And the ones taken today will make *that* one look like a blurry, smudgy mess, so stay tuned.

One question many people are asking is “Why aren’t they taking colour pictures? Why is everything in black and white?” Well, they are taking colour pictures, but taking those is more complicated, and beaming them back takes longer too, so we’ll have to wait a bit longer for those. One should be released this afternoon, and if the teasing, giddy Tweets I was reading from mission scientists last night are anything to go by, it will be fantastic..! In the meantime, here’s my not-accurate-at-all-just-did-it-for-fun colourised view…

Pluto NASA teatime colb

As I write this there are now four hours and forty two minutes to go until New Horizons makes its closest approach to Pluto – what can we actually expect to happen today? What will we be able to see?

Well, the best “view” of what is happening will be courtesy of that NASA computer app “Eyes on the Solar System”, which is a real-time live simulation of what New Horizons is doing, and seeing. Here’s a link to it – you have to download it onto your computer (not available for phones, sorry) and then run it. This is what it’s showing me right now…


You can see from that that NH is currently imaging the tiny moon “Nix”. Seriously, you HAVE to download this app, it’s the next best thing to being able to watch the fly-by live.

There will be a NASA Media Briefing on NASA TV at 12.30 (UK time) which will run until around 1pm. During that briefing the moment of closest approach will come and go, but there’ll be nothing to actually see because there’s no live video feed from the probe, and even if there was there would be a long, long time delay anyway, so the moment will be marked with a speech, probably, and a few “Well, fingers crossed…” smiles exchanged between the team members, too. However, there will be something to see because it’s expected that during the briefing we’ll get to see images taken yesterday, including that previously-mentioned and long-awaited colour image, so don’t miss that!

After that? Well, there’s nothing else scheduled, broadcast- or briefing wise until the very early hours of Wednesday morning, when another Media Briefing will be held at 1am.  Yes, you read that correctly, 1 AM! That will be a very important one, because that’s when we’ll hear – after a day of radio silence – if the probe made it through the Pluto system safely: an “I’m still here guys!” radio message, beamed back to Earth right after the closest encounter, should arrive on Earth just after 2am, so it will be very tense indeed waiting for that. If – no, let’s be optimistic, WHEN – that comes in, expect to see the mission team jumping up and down and punching the air in delight and relief. I always love watching that! 🙂

There will be another Media Briefing between 2.30am and 3.00am, which will give a “Mission Status” update, and then a long, long wait until 8pm Wednesday night when a major Media Briefing will be held, at which we will hopefully see a lot of new and amazing images.

So, there are now less than 4 hours to go until closest approach, and all we can do is wait.

Tick tick tick…!