Pluto Approach

Listen 00:06:09

The dwarf planet Pluto will be visited by New Horizons this summer, with the closest approach scheduled for June 14th.
This completes the grand Tour of all the planets (plus Pluto!).

The pressure is on to develop alternative launch services following Soyuz’ recent failed attempt to reach orbit. Russia is holding off on future launches until the problem is identified and corrected.

Wednesday thru Saturday, a waxing crescent moon slides by Venus first, then Jupiter. Should be a great view.

[Dave Heller} NASA is closing in on closing out its grand tour of the eight plus planets of our solar system. Let’s catch up with Derrick Pitts, Chief astronomer at the Franklin Institute. I have June 14th circled on my calendar.

[Derrick Pitts] And thats going to be a great day because on that day the New Horizons spacecraft will make its closest approach to the planet Pluto, the largest of the dwarf planets of our solar system. The spacecraft will come within 7800 miles, which is really fantastic! At this point the spacecraft is still about 55 million miles away but thats a tremendous improvement over the Earth’s basic distance from Pluto of about 3.6 billion miles, so we really are up close on the dwarf planet.

Talk about the home stretch! Now, is going to have to dodge any of the five moons of Pluto?

That’s a really great question and as the spacecraft gets closer, space craft operators are looking at all the imaging coming in to see if there are any other objects they have to worry about running into. We now have the first photographs of all five moons. Cheron which we’ve known about since the late 1980’s actually, plus the other four objects; Styx, Nix, Kerberos and Hydra. We could worry the most about Cheron is about 650 miles in diameter. The other four are no bigger than 20 miles in diameter and now that we’ve been able to image them we know where they are. But we still don’t know enough about the system to say those are the only objects that we might have to dodge.

I imagine its kind of tricky to dodge at that distance, it takes a while to get the message out and received and then sent back in terms of instructions to go left, go right.

Yeah that’s true, but a half day is plenty of time for us to change course slightly enough to miss something so we can still do that.

And once a safe orbit is determined will New Horizon orbit Pluto for evermore?

Actually no, what will happen is its going to fly right past Pluto and then it heads out towards what is known as the Kuiper belt; an extended region of objects out beyond the solar system where we have been able to identify at least five other objects that are Pluto’s size or slightly smaller. Some researchers believe that there are many more objects of Pluto’s size in the Kuiper belt just waiting to be discovered. Some think there may be hundreds.

Derrick, you and I are of the age that we can remember the TV show “Lost In Space”, well, there is a delay in space taking place right now.

Yes indeed, one of the expeditions that is on board The International Space Station right now is sort of stuck in a way and that is because a Russian Soyuz’resupply mission launched two weeks ago ran into trouble after launch. After it was launched into what was supposed to be Earth’s orbit, it began to tumble out of control at about 2 times a second and ground controllers never could gain operational control over it. Last week it reentered the Earth’s atmosphere and burned up. Well, because of this anomaly, Russian spacecraft operators are concerned enough about what caused the malfunction to begin to postpone and delay upcoming missions. One of them is that astronauts aboard The International Space Station were supposed to return to Earth last week but that has been postponed for at least two weeks. And it looks as though there is a domino effect that will effect the next resupply missions as well. There’s no real danger for the astronauts on board. There are plenty of supplies. The real concern is do we have any back up systems available to bring astronauts either to International Space Station or back to Earth? Right now we are dependent on the Russian system and this puts additional pressure on the development of new astronaut transportation systems.

I see time is running short, can we conduct the rest of this conversation at warp speed?

Haha, it would be great if we could do that! But we are not quite ready for that yet. NASA has been testing a new and different propulsion system that some have been describing as a potential warp drive called the EM drive. This drive has supposedly been able to generate energy or generate power without as much energy going into the system. In other words a free source of energy that might be able to drive a spacecraft at faster than light speed. But, there are some problems and the major problem is, this system is only experimental and even worse than that, the system claims there is more energy coming out than there is going in so this case of this new rocket motor, that violates the law of thermal dynamics; matter nor energy can neither be created nor destroyed. And so that simply can’t be the case.

What’s available to be seen in the night sky with clear skies this week?

So this week is really great because Wednesday through Saturday we will watch a very thin and growing crescent moon pass by the planets of the solar system. First the moon will pass by Venus Wednesday and Thursday and then by Friday and Saturday the moon will be making its way up toward Jupiter.

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