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Space Science

New Horizons: One Billion Miles From Pluto 135

Posted by Soulskill
from the investigating-a-planetary-imposter dept.
astroengine writes "On Feb. 10, NASA's Pluto-bound New Horizons probe entered the homestretch of its mission. When you are sprinting across the solar system, 'homestretch' is the final 1 billion miles of your journey. That sounds like quite a long stretch! But the half-ton spacecraft has already logged 2 billion miles since its launch in early 2006. That's twice the distance between Earth and Saturn. Though the icy dwarf planet is still three years away from its close encounter, mission scientists call this the Late Cruise phase of the flight."
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New Horizons: One Billion Miles From Pluto

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  • by Anonymous Coward

    Whenever I see posts like this, it always makes me think about how big the universe really is. Poets have talked about how far away the stars are and planets and the like. They always talked about hundreds or thousands of miles. Then we get to the real size of the universe and BAM! all of that is now wrong. Even modern poets usually talk in terms of "millions" of miles or kilometers to reach the stars and planets. Makes you seem really small when farther than you can even imagine is not far enough.

    • by Anonymous Coward on Monday February 13, 2012 @03:11PM (#39023689)

      Whenever I see posts like this, it always makes me think about how big the universe really is. Poets have talked about how far away the stars are and planets and the like. They always talked about hundreds or thousands of miles. Then we get to the real size of the universe and BAM! all of that is now wrong. Even modern poets usually talk in terms of "millions" of miles or kilometers to reach the stars and planets. Makes you seem really small when farther than you can even imagine is not far enough.

      Space is big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind- bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist's, but that's just peanuts to space.

      • by Anonymous Coward

        Whenever I see posts like this, it always makes me think about how big the universe really is. Poets have talked about how far away the stars are and planets and the like. They always talked about hundreds or thousands of miles. Then we get to the real size of the universe and BAM! all of that is now wrong. Even modern poets usually talk in terms of "millions" of miles or kilometers to reach the stars and planets. Makes you seem really small when farther than you can even imagine is not far enough.

        Space is big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind- bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist's, but that's just peanuts to space.

        To experience the vastness of the universe can I suggest you enter the Total Perspective Vortex ? ^_^

      • by na1led (1030470)
        The multiverse outside our universe is infinite because time is infinite, therefore it doesn't have a size.
        • by Ginger Unicorn (952287) on Monday February 13, 2012 @06:23PM (#39026475)
          Time isn't infinite. When the universe was at minimum entropy, time began. When the universe reaches maximum entropy, time ends.
          • Time is an illusion. Lunchtime doubly so.
          • The statement that time isn't infinite has always bugged me, because there were events before "time" (as we measure it) began, before our Universe and markers of reference, a state where (and when) quantum fluctuations occurred, at the very least. Let's put a name to it and call it Meta-Time.
            In this Meta-Time, some event precipitated the Big Bang, or False-Vacuum Inflation, or whatever Everything is.

            As for infinity, I have no difficulty visualizing time going forward forever, but backwards... a Meta-Clock

            • This assumes that whatever medium the universe exists in is subject to entropy and causality as we understand it. There could very well be no meta-clock. The metaverse may be infinite and timeless. Our universe could exist, fixed and determinate with it's entire timeline laid out like a 4 dimension film reel. We experience movies one frame at a time, but the entire reel exists no matter what frame you're looking at.
          • by arisvega (1414195)

            Time isn't infinite [..] time ends.

            Seems that you have it all figured out. Well, not much point in having physicists around I guess.

        • by Ruie (30480)

          The multiverse outside our universe is infinite because time is infinite, therefore it doesn't have a size.

          Actually, the latest estimates [wikipedia.org] suggest there are 1e500 different possibilities for a universe - a larger number, but sure not infinite ;)

      • by bryan1945 (301828)

        Is that a leopard guarding your file cabinet?

    • And that's why we invented scientific notation. After all, what's an order of magnitude between friends?
      • by j35ter (895427)
        Yes, 6.000 light years is a huge amount of space....
    • You are here (Score:5, Insightful)

      by sakdoctor (1087155) on Monday February 13, 2012 @03:29PM (#39023907) Homepage
      • by Oswald McWeany (2428506) on Monday February 13, 2012 @03:43PM (#39024125)

        Probably sitting in front of my fish tank swatting at the glass.

        I worship my cat- she is my goddess and empress of the universe. I admit, the question wasn't aimed at me, and not everyone agrees with my deity of choice.

        • by Gilmoure (18428) on Monday February 13, 2012 @04:19PM (#39024667) Journal

          According to my dogs, I'm the god of good treats and he who knows how to make the adventure box go down the road.

        • by melikamp (631205)
          IMHO, Sun worship and cat worship are some of the most sane and non-superstitious religions in existence (and ancient Egyptians did both). Unlike in many other religions, the deities are real and their immense powers over humans are apparent to all. Cats in particular have never done as well as today, and their star seems to be still rising. They don't do absolutely anything but look cute, and they are set for life with food, healthcare, and entertainment. Wild populations are often tolerated, giving them e
          • Cats in particular have never done as well as today, and their star seems to be still rising.

            And it shall remain so, until the Nibblers finally come to usurp the throne of the LOLcat.

      • by operagost (62405)
        47,000,000,000.1
      • Re:You are here (Score:4, Interesting)

        by willaien (2494962) on Monday February 13, 2012 @04:37PM (#39024923)

        I feel like the image titled 'pale blue dot' does a better job of illustrating just how... small we are in the grand scheme of things.

        http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/73/Pale_Blue_Dot.png [wikimedia.org]

        Do a search on youtube for 'Pale Blue Dot' by carl sagan if you want to be humbled.

      • right here.
      • If the universe is only 13.75 billion years old, how do you observe something 47 billion light years away?
        • I presume that one would observe it when it used to be a lot closer, shortly after the big bang, when the universe was much smaller. At least, you would observe the light which left that object when it used to be closer and has only now overtaken us as we move outward.

        • by bryan1945 (301828)

          It took a wrong turn at Sacramento.

      • by mbrod (19122)
        La illaha.

        There is no God.

        There is no God in creation because he is the Creator of creation and there is nothing like Him. He created existence, time and space.

        La illaha il illah,

        There is no God, but God.

        There is nothing in this Universe able to create (la illaha). So look for the One that does create.
      • by MarkVVV (740454)

        Observing ungrateful people like you.

      • by mhajicek (1582795)
        Even better: http://www.newgrounds.com/portal/view/525347 [newgrounds.com] Plank Length to Observable Universe in a flash.
      • Well, assuming your numbers and my math are correct (and I have no reason to believe otherwise), I'd say we have something like 9.25*10^21 cubic light years in which to search.
      • Yup. Still here and in the center of the universe..as The Earth always was.
      • by bryan1945 (301828)

        Eating a banana. Bobo likes a banana before bed time.

      • by dudpixel (1429789)

        you're making some assumptions there...

        say you built a robot - it would be pretty easy for you to hide from it if you didn't want to be seen. its a crude example, but kind of demonstrates the point.

        science and religion are 2 different fields. generally speaking one cannot disprove the other.

    • by Bengie (1121981)

      What I don't get is why they use "miles". "Billions" is already such a large number that I cannot relate to it, might as well use a "proper" measurement.

      • Light-years are too large for this case and the only thing we really have between light-years and miles are AU, which most people don't really get. Granted, they don't understand exactly what a lightyear is either (especially the "I haven't been there in lightyears" crowd), but its even harder to understand what an AU is.

        I think the main reason they use miles is people can relate to it. "Grandma's house is 12 miles away. California is 3,000 miles away. Hey, it takes a while to drive to California, I know be

    • by monkeyhybrid (1677192) on Monday February 13, 2012 @04:19PM (#39024665)
      I've been interested in all things 'space' since I was a young kid and consider myself reasonably knowledgeable about the universe, galaxies, star systems, etc, but I still get blown away when thinking about the scale of things some times.

      One of the main things I try to put across to people when I talk about space, is just how big it is. Sometimes people can't get their head around the numbers, which is quite understandable seeing as we typically don't have much experience dealing with these kind of measurements, so if I have the chance I will point them to the following links containing fantastic visualisations of such scales. They cover the very big and the very small equally well I think, and are simple and engaging enough for kids to follow too.

      Powers of Ten [powersof10.com] - very interesting short video commissioned by IBM back in 1968.

      The Scale of The Universe [htwins.net] - interactive flash applet that allows you to zoom in and out of the universe (an updated version of one done a year or two back by the same authors).

      Relative size of stars and planets [rense.com] - I have no idea who originally made this set of images but they have propogated around the web over the years and this just happens to be first link to it I found in Google results.

      If there's one thing in the second and third links that I think will surprise a lot of people, it's how insanely large the biggest stars are compared to our Sun (in diameter, not necessarily in mass).
      • by jackbird (721605)

        Two things about The Powers of Ten:

        While commissioned by IBM, it was created by the office of Charles and Ray Eames. As in the chair.

        An updated, shiner, IMAX version, narrated by Morgan Freeman, was recently created. While prettier, if you watch the two back-to-back on youtube, you can see the science content getting softer and more digestible (not that the original was a tremendously high bar). One exception - the area of the previous order of magnitude is displayed as a circle rather than as a square.

  • Blazing out of the sun’s gravitational well at 34,000 miles per hour

    That's about like driving from San Francisco to New York City in 5 minutes, or from Madrid to Moscow in a little more than 4 minutes (via Google Maps directions), instead of a couple of days. I'm impressed.

    • by jeffb (2.718) (1189693) on Monday February 13, 2012 @03:16PM (#39023755)

      Actually, it's about as different from driving as you can get. Stop for just one traffic light between here and Pluto, and see what it does to your mission profile.

      • by HappyHead (11389)

        Well, considering the distance travelled per second, and the number of seconds warning that you would get that the light was going to turn red (nobody ever starts breaking until the light is orange!), to go from 34,000 miles per hour to a dead stop in about 12 seconds would require a total energy of ... er... half a ton times... ouch. I think you're going to get a bit of a seat-belt rash from that one. Good thing they planned for a route with no traffic lights or stop signs. Hopefully they won't have a p

        • by Jeng (926980)

          Yellow lights should last around 1 second per 10 miles of speed, if the speed limit is 34,000 miles an hour then the yellow light should last 3,400 seconds or a little under an hour.

      • I don't know why- but that comment has got the song "UFOs, Big Rigs, And BBQ" stuck in my head.

        UFOs are big rigs
        They come from outer-space
        stopping off at the truck stop earth
        looking for some food to eat

      • by mhajicek (1582795)
        Stop for just one traffic light from that speed and see what your face does to your windshield.
    • It's also like rocketing from Earth to Pluto in just over 8 years, or from the Moon to Saturn in just under 5 years (via TFA). =)

      Teasing aside, the little space-bullet hit 51,000 mph during Jupiter's gravity assist. Crazy fast.
      • by reezle (239894)

        I don't know... geosynchronous satellites go about 7000mph, and we have dozens (hundred?) of them up there.
        Seems like interplanetary missions should be going at least an order of magnitude faster.
        (Yeah, the economics of it all)

        • Re:I'm impressed, (Score:5, Interesting)

          by slew (2918) on Monday February 13, 2012 @06:19PM (#39026427)

          FWIW, I think most folks are just thinking about things wrong when they talk about velocity of space vehicles. It's often better to think of things in terms of work and kinetic energy (force x distance). For example, interestingly, once you are in geosync** orbit***, the "escape" speed (aka escape velocity) is even lower than on the ground (since escape_speed ~ sqrt(2GM/r), bigger "r" means lower escape speed), but moving a certain distance and having a certain kinetic energy in the gravitational potential well are more intuitive notions.

          Besides, velocity is "generally" relative anyhow ;^) Acceleration is the interesting notion. Standing on earth we are already all going 65,000mph relative to the sun because the earth is in orbit (meaning the earth is balanced between falling into the sun and flinging away). It's only the difficulty of maintaining a chosen velocity on earth where there's lots of friction that warps our perception of velocity. Under constant acceleration in a vaccuum, acheiving high velocity is just a matter of waiting for some time.

          **Geosync is just the orbit you have to get to so that the gravitational acceleration matches the centripital acceleration needed to maintain the same relative position on the ground. Of course for a satellite still on the ground, that's easy, static frictional forces provide the needed acceleration to maintain the same relative position on the ground. When the satellite is launched above the ground, there aren't any static frictional forces, so you need to rely on gravity to apply the appropriate gravitational acceleration. If mass and the gravitational constant are invarient, you really only have the radius to play with. You then get whatever "circular" velocity you get at that radius (or you don't stay in orbit very long) w/o applying additional forces over the gravitational force.

          ***In orbit, you sweep out equal areas in equal time, so in a highly eccentric orbit (or even a parabolic or hyperbolic orbit that you get with gravity assist), you can get really, really, high velocities at some points in the orbit. Of course these types of orbits aren't geosync orbits anymore.

    • by Kittenman (971447)

      Blazing out of the sun’s gravitational well at 34,000 miles per hour

      That's about like driving from San Francisco to New York City in 5 minutes, or from Madrid to Moscow in a little more than 4 minutes (via Google Maps directions), instead of a couple of days. I'm impressed.

      Oh goody, a car analogy. Sort of.

  • by dtmos (447842) * on Monday February 13, 2012 @03:10PM (#39023675)

    A page showing New Horizons' location relative to the planets is here [jhuapl.edu]. Detailed ephemeris and other data on the probe can be obtained from NASA's HORIZONS [nasa.gov] system -- click on Target body "[change]", then enter "-98" in the search box.

  • by Oswald McWeany (2428506) on Monday February 13, 2012 @03:18PM (#39023781)

    Getting to pass close to an object as small as Pluto, (reclassified as I like to say as a "vertically challenged" planet) from 3 billion miles away is impressive. Especially since this is no sitting duck.

    This is an object whose velocity is measured in KM per second moving in a very eccentric orbit.

    We often take for granted NASA does this and NASA does that- because they have been doing it for decades- but it never ceases to amaze me how we can so accurately target (relatively) small objects that are travelling at such incredible speeds from such mind boggling distances.

    • by SJHillman (1966756) on Monday February 13, 2012 @03:56PM (#39024311)

      You've got a point.

      I bet when NASA engineers play beer pong, each cup is moving at a different speed with a different path. And you have to aim from the next city over looking through a spyglass.

      • Yeah, if our marksmen had the same accuracy- a sniper with a powerfull enough rifle could have taken out Saddam Hussein with a single shot whilst standing on top of Mt. Rushmore. Completely avoiding the 2nd Gulf war.

        • I should point out that in my analogy above- the sniper is standing on top of Mt. Rushmore- not Sadam Hussein.

          Saddam would presumably have been dedicating a statue of himself in Baghdad.

          • I should point out that in my analogy above- the sniper is standing on top of Mt. Rushmore- not Sadam Hussein.

            Well, in the latter case the shot is quite a bit easier.

      • by Chris Burke (6130)

        I bet when NASA engineers play beer pong, each cup is moving at a different speed with a different path. And you have to aim from the next city over looking through a spyglass.

        And nobody is impressed unless you use the lip of a closer cup to redirect the ball into the cup you were aiming for.

    • by boristdog (133725)

      Man, you make those NASA folks sound as smart as a bunch of rocket scientists.

    • I think you mean radially challanged

    • by jaa101 (627731)
      You do realise they do course corrections [nasa.gov]? Yes, the maths they do is neat, especially when they need to take relativistic effects into account. There's a limit to how accurately the spacecraft can set its course so they plan to fine-tune multiple times during a mission.
      • by Rich0 (548339)

        True, but just working out the exact position of the probe and Pluto to that level of precision is a challenge.

  • by spirit_fingers (777604) on Monday February 13, 2012 @03:24PM (#39023845)

    Given the way NASA's keeps getting slashed, we'll be lucky if there's any money left to analyze the data when it finally does arrive at Pluto.

  • Just some things (Score:5, Informative)

    by Darth Snowshoe (1434515) on Monday February 13, 2012 @03:47PM (#39024189)

    Already, NH has prompted much more thorough scrutiny of Pluto, resulting in the discovery of a new (fourth) moon;

    http://science.nasa.gov/science-news/science-at-nasa/2011/20jul_p4/ [nasa.gov]

    And hey, the program is trying to select a member of the Kuiper Belt to visit beyond Pluto, and they're crowdsourcing the search;

    http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2011-06/22/crowd-source-new-horizons-next-destination [wired.co.uk]

    Also, there's a New Horizons app in the iPhone App store (don't know if there's an Android version).

    • Also, there's a New Horizons app in the iPhone App store (don't know if there's an Android version).

      I didn't see one when I searched market. The only apps that showed up in a search for "New Horizon" was a combination compass/artificial horizon and a banking application.

      • There's a link from this page to the app store;

        http://pluto.jhuapl.edu/epoapps/ [jhuapl.edu]

        I have it on my own iphone, so I'm sure it exists. It's not very exciting just now, (though you can see the images from the Jupiter flyby).

        • Sorry -- I should have specified which market I meant. I was checking to see if there was an app for Android, not iPhone ;) (but I appreciate the effort, anyway)
  • by Anonymous Coward

    "That's twice the distance between Earth and Saturn."

    The distance is quite variable so this doesn't make much sense. Perhaps you meant to say:

    "That's twice the difference between radii of Saturn's and Earth's orbit.",

  • 9.98 AU from Pluto (Score:5, Interesting)

    by dfcamara (1268174) on Monday February 13, 2012 @03:55PM (#39024289) Homepage
    Distance from Sun (AU): 22.34
    Distance from Earth (AU): 23.06
    Distance from Pluto (AU): 9.98

    IMHO much more sense than billions of miles.
    • by DanielRavenNest (107550) on Monday February 13, 2012 @07:03PM (#39026831)

      The scientifically interesting distance is when it gets close enough to get better data than Hubble did. At perigee, Pluto was at a minimum distance of 28.6 AU from Earth. New Horizons has a much smaller telescope, so it gets 1/20th the resolution as Hubble gets. Therefore it needs to be that much closer, or 1.4 AU away, before it can take better photos. Until then, Earthbound equipment does a better job. That time is around the start of 2015, 6 months before flyby.

  • Think about this (Score:4, Interesting)

    by eclectro (227083) on Monday February 13, 2012 @03:57PM (#39024323)

    If it had not been for the exhorbitant cost of the wars, we could have afforded to build a probe to orbit Pluto rather than just do a flyby.

    As it was, New Horizons was largely made possible by a few congressman who pushed specifically for funding for this mission before Pluto's orbit [windows2universe.org] removed it too far away from the sun.

  • Pluto is smaller than our Moon. Our planet should be re-classified as a binary planet, with the number of planets in our solar system restored to 9.
    • by turing_m (1030530)

      Interestingly enough there are seven moons that are larger than Pluto. Ganymede, Callisto, Titan, the Moon, Io, Europa and Triton.

  • by wisebabo (638845) on Monday February 13, 2012 @04:17PM (#39024631) Journal

    Has there been any indication of the slight change in velocity experienced by (one of?) the Pioneer probes? (I don't know if it was claimed to affect the Voyager probes).

    I realize that they think it was due to heating causing a tiny radiation pressure but just wondering.

    Also, have they decided if there is a ring system at Pluto to avoid? Any follow on plans to image any specific Kuiper objects?

    You know, if they could figure out how to use the main dish for radio-astronometric purposes, it would be fantastic! Although the dish size is very small compared to the ones on the ground, if they could make this work what a fantastic baseline! 100AU! I think they've got enough power to do this (the half life of the plutoniium is 88 years). But maybe they'd need to have an atomic clock on board to pull it off, I doubt they thought of that :(

    • I saw an article about it recently. The velocity change was being attributed to asymetric emission of heat radiation from the spacecraft. But I don't think that was the final word.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    And in other news (on the same page) "Psychics Say Apollo 16 Astronauts Found Alien Ship", "NASA Finds Lost Spacecraft on DARK [emphasis mine] Side of the Moon".

  • by Anonymous Coward

    New Horizon is traveling about 34,471 mph. It was launched January 19, 2006 and has been flying almost six years. I know as an object approaches the speed of light time slows down. So, how much has New Horizon actually aged with respect to us?

    • The probe started out at roughly our speed and accelerated to 34,471 mph, or about 15.4 km/s. In the absence of a complex acceleration history, the simple, first-order approximation of the probe's average speed over the last 6 years is about 7.7 km/s or about 2.6e-5 c. At that speed, the relativistic effect is about 0.99999999967015470011, meaning that the probe has aged about 62 milliseconds less than you have.

  • I just don't see what the big deal is. My Imicus can clear this distance in about 20 seconds, including the time to startup and shutdown.

    Apathetic planet, I've no sympathy at all.

  • by Z-4195 (858503)
    Great, three more years before discovering the Charon Mass Relay. Asari, here we come!
  • NASA needs to knock off all the PR projects they know aren't going anywhere and start dumping some cash into next generation tech for robotic probes. It's ridiculous that we're still lobbing up satellites when we've got tech like solar sails and ion drives we can do right now. Yeah, yeah, need cash but man am I tired of having to wait 5-10 years for probes to get to their targets.

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