The New Horizons Mission and the Pluto Flyby: A First Hand Experience
By Talon Bevan (https://www.facebook.com/dynamitechem6)
Last month on June 6th, I had a great opportunity to visit the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, MD, minutes from my hometown. I went on a tour and participated in a panel discussion as part of the NASA Social event they were having there. Since JHU APL is practically in my backyard, I have met many people who work there and have visited a different part of the campus–specifically, the Kossiakoff Center– several times throughout high school. It was awesome to see more of the APL campus and see what they do there, especially for NASA.
This NASA Social focused on the New Horizons mission, which will be conducting a flyby of Pluto in mid-July. Closest approach will be on July 14th. New Horizons is crucial because it will be our first close-up look at Pluto. The scientists analyzing the data that New Horizons will send to Earth are essentially writing the textbooks on Pluto, because all of the data sent is entirely new information.
The first place my group stopped at on the tour was Mission Operations. We were seated in a conference room with windows to the actual Mission Operations room, where they have the computers that monitor the status of the spacecraft and its position in space. Some data was projected on the walls– so many numbers! I loved it.
In the conference room, the New Horizons MOM (Mission Operations Manager) gave us a presentation, mostly about how the New Horizons spacecraft communicates with us here on Earth–more specifically, how it communicates with the computers and people right in the room on the other side of the windows! We learned about the Deep Space Network, which is an array of three very large satellites located in California, Madrid, and Canberra (Australia). It supports interplanetary spacecraft missions, so, all of the information New Horizons collects will get to Earth through the DSN.
We had a big conversation about what is going to happen in that room on July 14. As you can imagine, it will be hectic! Many scientists from elsewhere in the US who have been working on the mission will be flying in, checking out rooms at a local hotel. There will be shifts and while everyone will be pretty eager to be there, the MOM will be sending people back home or to their hotel rooms when they’re too tired. Since monitoring and receiving information from the flyby is such a big deal, they had a dress rehearsal of sorts for it last year. It will be a huge moment for these people and they’re all very excited about it.
After visiting Mission Operations, we toured the building facilities. We looked inside the clean room where they were building a new spacecraft for a mission that will travel to be within 10 solar radii of the sun (super close!). Spacecraft is built in clean rooms to avoid molecular contamination. (Molecular contamination! Now we’re talking. My background is in Chemistry. Yes, please, let’s talk about molecules). Anyway, clean room specifications and the special suits people wear when building the craft are to avoid the collection of molecules on the surface of the craft. In space, these everyday molecules would become volatile (meaning that they turn to gas) and then re-condense because of the cold conditions of space and the coldness of the surface of the craft, causing the instruments to fog in the same manner that moisture condenses on your glasses in a steamy environment.
We also visited the test facilities, and since it wasn’t a clean room, we were able to walk in. The engineer who worked there and was giving the tour said that he refers to it as the “Shake and Bake” room. Here accurate models of the spacecraft are run through many test: acoustics, structural, thermal, vibrational… all the things you would want to test before sending an expensive spacecraft out into space.
After those tours, we took a break for lunch. And after lunch, we all got into place for the live broadcast of the panel conference. You can find the archive at www.youtube.com/watch?v=tlNjniFCXMg&feature=youtu.be. Various scientists on the Mission gave short presentations about their area of expertise in the mission, and answered our questions, some of which included asking about how the craft was made, what might we expect to find on Pluto, and about their experiences working on the team.
I am so excited about the flyby of Pluto in mid July. We are going to learn SO much information about Pluto, this enigmatic object at the far end of our solar system. The flyby is the precursor to us one day landing on Pluto. It’s groundbreaking. Visiting APL, meeting many of the mission’s scientists, and thinking about all the math and computing and experimentation that went into sending this precision spacecraft on this extraordinary mission really blew my mind. Yay for math and science! (And for space too, of course!)