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BYU Students get First Glimpse of Pluto System

Photo by Rob Johnson

Since the final months of 2015, millions of people have seen the photos of Pluto from the New Horizons mission. But only a fortunate few people have had the chance to hear about the mission from a scientist directly involved in the project.

At this year’s Quey Hebrew lecture, Dr. John Spencer of the Department of Space Studies at the Southwest Research Institute addressed BYU students about the results of the New Horizons mission. Dr. Spencer has been directly involved in the project since the craft’s launch in 2006.

After showing the audience what primitive photos of Pluto looked like, Spencer began his lecture by describing the launch of the New Horizons spacecraft.

“It was an amazing thing to see, and pretty unreal, actually,” Spencer said. “This thing, it’s just going to be gone forever. The next you hear from it, it’s going to be flying across the solar system to Pluto.”

At 36,000 miles per hour, the craft was the fastest ever launched from earth. Even ten years after its launch, it still moves at roughly the same velocity: ten miles per second.

Traveling at that speed, the craft reached the moon in nine hours and Jupiter a year later. The scientists in charge of planning the route to Pluto decided to use Jupiter’s gravitational pull as a sort of boost for the New Horizons spacecraft. According to Dr. Spencer, using Jupiter’s gravity shortened the journey to Pluto by about two years.

“As we flew by Jupiter, we were taking pictures of the moons as we went past,” Spencer said. “It wasn’t our main job to study Jupiter’s moons, but we got some pictures anyways.”

By sheer luck, the New Horizons cameras captured a video of an active volcano on one of Jupiter’s moons called Io. The video is only five frames long, but Spencer and his team were proud of it anyway, calling it “the first ever extraterrestrial volcano movie.”

“We took some pictures just for scenery,” Spencer said. “You don’t get to go to Jupiter very often, so you want to come back with good pictures.”

When the craft was ten days away from reaching Pluto, its computer crashed. The result was a lot of scientists working tirelessly to get it back online, which Spencer described as something similar to the movie Apollo 13. Fortunately, the computers were back online long before the team missed their one opportunity to get photos of Pluto.

The photos of Pluto revealed a landscape like nothing Spencer had ever seen before. Pluto’s geography includes large mountains several miles high, smooth plains, canyons, and even some formations that are shaped like rivers.

“We never expected to see this much variety on Pluto.” Spencer said.

The mission answered several questions regarding the Pluto system. The composition of Pluto’s atmosphere became more clear; it includes methane CH4, carbon monoxide, and a lot of nitrogen. Spencer and his team also learned that some of the surfaces of Pluto are very old, while other parts are very young and geologically active.

The data takes roughly four and a half hours to travel from Pluto to Earth. More data is arriving every day. In fact, some of Spencer’s photos had never been shown in public before the lecture, making BYU students some of the first people to see them.

Dr. Spencer predicts that the final pieces of data will arrive in fall of this year. Without all of the data, Spencer noted, much of what we think we know about Pluto is still speculation.

Before the New Horizons mission, Pluto was little more than a mysterious white speck in the sky. Now, there is a whole new world waiting to be discovered.