Pluto Loves you more than the NFL

11:49 UTC, July 14th, 7.5 billion kilometers from Earth (that’s 4.67 billion miles for you non-scientist-Americans out there!) roughly 478 kilograms (1,053.81lbs, over a half a ton!) of human built instrumentation entered a close fly-by trajectory, and the general public remembered the generally forgotten New Horizons probe.

91878-120-D9683A32It is not unexpected. It is how our science programs operate. We struggle to gain funding for equipment, experiments and missions in a political bureaucracy that often times doesn’t understand the value of the work we do as scientists and engineers. We then work hard building the missions on a less than desired budget, (in this case, for a mission over 9 years long), in hopes that the 10+day payout at the end will be enough to justify the money and time spent. Not to us, mind you; just doing it is enough justification for those of us in the space and aerospace industries. No, we must justify it to the politicians and the taxpayers, and rightly so.

As we look at the last week of the New Horizons mission, I can assure you without a doubt that the $720 million dollars spent on this project was put to good use and has resulted in some amazing new information. So let us summarize everything we have found so far, and keep in mind, this is just what we have had time to analyze:

First and foremost, real live (ok, near live, after you account for travel time of the radio waves) pictures of Pluto. This might not seem amazing at first, but you need to realize that the Pluto you have in your head is based on artist illustrations, which take interpretive and best guess ideas based on scientific data. Any actual pictures of Pluto were taken from very far away, and at very low resolution. Small pixelated, blurry images that give only the faintest idea of what color Pluto is. This is all changed now. We have actual pictures of the dwarf planet. Not to mention that this is the first time we have seen a new planet since the 80’s! I, for one, would also like to point out my favorite image of Pluto.

pluto001Ok, it may only appear to be a heart, but forgive me (and the rest of the world) for choosing to see it how we want. We think that the heart was created due to some impact and that within it lies the heart of an ancient beast… oh sorry, wrong article. Within it is thought to be frozen gases such as nitrogen, methane and carbon dioxide from Pluto’s Atmosphere. While this in itself may not sound interesting, it actually is quite so. Anytime you come across frozen anything, it’s like a time capsule showing you a glimpse of how things were at the time it was frozen.

New Horizons has also shown us that the planet is Red, this is where those pictures come in again. If you were to have asked people two weeks ago what color Pluto was, odds are they would have thought it was blue or gray. Whoops! Why does this matter? Well, it turns out the color of a planet is a hint at the chemistry going on at the surface. For example, Mars is red because it is basically a giant rust bucket. That is, the dust is mostly iron which has oxidized. We see this as another indication that, at some point, there was water and/or oxygen on Mars. So obviously Pluto must have had water and oxygen too, right? Not necessarily. Pluto and Mars have very different atmospheres. OK, time to be honest here, scientists have actually known that Pluto was a reddish color for a few decades, but with the general public it’s kind of a “pictures or it didn’t happen” situation. Back to the reddish color, it is thought that unlike the iron oxidation on Mars, the red is actually caused by complex reactions of ultraviolet light called Lyman-alpha. What we did learn, however, is that there is an overall “Lyman-alpha glow” from all directions, rather than just from the Sun as originally expected.

New Horizons has shown us that Pluto is also roughly 80 km (50mi) larger in diameter than previously thought. This actually brings some interesting conclusions about the density and makeup of mars. Based on its mass and now known diameter, it is suggested that Pluto is actually less rock and more ice than previously suspected. This actually leads me to an interesting side note on how we calculate mass of astronomical bodies. It is great science!

Skipping to the relevant part, if you have two massive bodies close to each other, you can calculate their mass by measure the gravitational effects they have on each other. This is why we have known the mass of Pluto since the discovery of its moon, Charon in 1978. Thank you Kepler’s Law.

pluto_heart_of_the_heart_03Pluto has ice caps! Caution: Ice does not inherently mean water. Any element can be liquid given the correct temperature and pressure – any liquid can freeze and make ice. In the case of Pluto, that Ice is most likely made up of nitrogen, methane and carbon monoxide.



Not just a boring planet (are any of them truly boring?), Pluto’s surface is highly complex. Currently, we know for sure that there are now at least two mountain ranges, with the latest estimated between 1 and 1.5 km in height. The ranges also help to highlight the distinctly different geography between the lighter and darker areas of the planet, something that promises to be a very interesting interaction.


Pluto itself isn’t the only sounh-nix-hydra-7-21rce of new information, however. Not a lot is known of the two smaller moons, Nix and Hydra. More data is on the way for these bodies, but it has not yet been downlinked, which brings up another point. The total time of the Pluto flyby lasted just around 9 days, collecting 50 GB of data and the total Pluto mission will continue until January of 2016.

With radio signals taking 4.5 hours (and increasing) to reach earth, and transmitting at 2kb/sec over a shared network, it will be months before all the data is collected back at Earth, 16 to be more precise. Add to that the time it takes to analyze that data, and we are looking at a few years of information and research.

That isn’t the end of New Horizons, though. As it travels further away from Pluto, it prepares to enter further into the Kuiper Belt to investigate another object in early 2019.

So, was it worth the cost? Just the information gathered so far from Pluto is enough for me to say YES, but add to that, we have the data to come from the rest of the Pluto set, as well as its moons, and the potential flyby of an additional object, not to mention the already collected data from early passes of Asteroid 132524 APL, Jupiter and its moons. That $720 M averages out to be $60 M a year over the life time of the mission and extended mission.

Think that is a lot? Odds are your tax payer money has been used to subsidize at least one of your favorite NFL team’s stadium which cost between $100 M and $1.15 B.

And does your stadium leave you “love” notes as you fly by at 58,536 km/h  ?

I didn’t think so.



Beat that Bo Jackson!

You can find more information on NASA’s New Horizon project at

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Chris Birkinbine is a Range Systems Engineer at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center. His educational background includes a B.S. in Applied Physics from the University of Idaho where he contributed research on Nano-Spring conductivity as well as superconductor/magnetic levitation. Chris is currently pursuing his M.S. in Space Studies through the University of North Dakota.

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