UCF's billion-mile tie to New Horizons' Pluto mission
"This is the first time we're getting to see that part of our home. It's like we've all lived in a mansion, and we've spent our entire lives in the kitchen."
Philip Metzger, a planetary scientist at UCF's Florida Space Institute, was one of many to witness the closest approach to Pluto ever been made in history.
On Tuesday at exactly 7:49:57 a.m., NASA's New Horizons mission made its closest approach to the mysterious body.
"The closest approach will be just one instant of time," Metzger said. "There's no way to slow it down. It's going so fast that it doesn't have the ability to carry that much fuel to slow down."
The New Horizons team hit the "aim point" within less than 40 miles, and the arrival time to within one minute after traveling more than 3.5 billion miles for almost 10 years, said MJ Soileau, vice president for Research & Commercialization at UCF.
At around 9:30 p.m., NASA re-established contact with the spacecraft to verify it had survived the close encounter.
"New Horizons successfully phoned home. All is well," Soileau said. "It has been a wonderful few days for science."
The spacecraft turned its attention back to gathering more data from Pluto and its moons after it reassured NASA that all systems were OK. In order to send the data back, the spacecraft must stop collecting, turn toward Earth and use the radio to send everything through space.
The spacecraft's antenna bounces signals off Pluto to study its surface and store information for later transmission, so it's unable to be in contact with Earth during this time. However, because the spacecraft runs the risk of destruction, a handful of photos are being sent periodically to reduce the strain of sending them all at once.
The first photos of Pluto were shipped Wednesday afternoon and received that evening. Data rate is only a few thousand bits per second, and Soileau said the next photos to come will have 10 times the resolution.
"It takes four and a half hours for a signal to travel from there to here, and the data rate is very slow," he said. "Some engineering data will be exchanged when it phones home, but new, high resolution images will not likely be available until [Thursday] afternoon."
For a week, the spacecraft will be traveling through Pluto's Hill sphere, a region around a body in space where the gravity of that body dominates the other forces. It may only be a short amount of time that New Horizons will be close enough to grab as much detailed data as possible, but that is not the end of the mission.
Because the spacecraft is going to collect an immense amount of data within a matter of a few days, it will take nine to 16 months to send all of the data back to Earth.
"It's probably the coolest thing that we're going to see in planetary science during the rest of my lifetime," Metzger said. "There's a chance that I won't live to see another mission to the Kuiper Belt, so this is a really big deal for me."
Metzger retired from NASA last year and was hired and challenged early this year by Alan Stern, chief scientist at UCF's Florida Space Institute, to do public outreach for the mission and investigate whether Pluto is a planet.
Stern, the principal investigator of the New Horizons mission, started sending Metzger interviews and invited him to attend the big celebration during the flyby.
Although NASA paid for the mission, it is operated by Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. Metzger and his daughter, who also aspires to enter the astronomy field, were at the Applied Physics Lab at Johns Hopkins during the flyby, which is where the spacecraft is being controlled and all of the data is being sent and seen for the first time.
From the data of the spacecraft's closest encounter and first appearance in the third zone of the solar system, Metzger expects to see all kinds of interesting geological features.
"We learned it has a very high atmosphere. We know that there are circulation patterns," he said. "It could be that these spots that we see on the surface are areas where dust is being scattered away and redeposited somewhere else."
The New Horizons team will also be able to determine whether there is a subsurface ocean, which raises the question: Is there life on Pluto? Many questions will be answered, and Metzger said by doing planetary science and looking at other worlds, things will be seen in a new way, revealing questions that should be asked.
Although Soileau said the spacecraft is now zipping away from Pluto at more than 30,000 mph, new data will still be coming back every day.
"It's important to learn about Pluto and the other planets so that we can take better care of Earth and understand the place that we live, here in our universe," Metzger said.
Once the flyby is complete, the spacecraft will have to burn its engines to slightly adjust its course, most likely starting a journey to another unknown body.
Metzger said he has a feeling the next time a spacecraft is sent to Pluto, it won't be just a flyby, but rather an attempt to go into orbit around it.
"The mission has to go on," he said.
Rachel Stuart is the News Editor for the Central Florida Future. Follow her on Twitter at @RachSage or email her at RachelS@CentralFloridaFuture.com.