This week Lauren Corlies, a sixth year graduate student here at Columbia, took us on a journey to the far reaches of the Solar System with the fastest spacecraft every built.
New Horizons is the fruit of a project spanning decades and left Earth nearly 10 years ago. Launched with the principle goal of a Pluto flyby, Lauren chronicled its path through the inner solar system and the asteroid belt, its close encounter with asteroid 132524 APL, and the gravity assist from Jupiter which enhanced its speed and gave it the energy needed to reach Pluto.
After she described the various scientific instruments onboard New Horizons (which include high-resolution optical, ultraviolet and infrared cameras and spectrometers, magnetic field sensors, particles counters and radio science experiments), Lauren told us about some of the amazing science results from the mission. To name just a few, the New Horizons team has found that Pluto’s atmosphere is much denser than anticipated and contains stratified haze layers of unknown origin; that the bright and heart-shaped “Sputnik Planum” region is a vast plain of nitrogen ice with the consistency of toothpaste where water-ice mountains, kilometers in size, floating like icebergs; and that several of Pluto’s five satellites show signs of being the lumpy remnants from collisions of smaller bodies.
Lauren highly recommended checking out the New Horizons website to see more fascinating pictures from the flyby and the spacecraft’s current status as it exits the solar system.
-- David Hendel (graduate student)