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Deep Space: Moving Toward Encounter Mode

No spacecraft has ever traveled further to reach its primary target than New Horizons, now inbound to Pluto/Charon. From 4.6 billion kilometers from Earth (four hours, 26 minutes light travel time), the spacecraft has sent confirmation that its much anticipated wake-up call from ground controllers was a success. Since December 6, New Horizons has been in active mode, a state whose significance principal investigator Alan Stern explains:

“This is a watershed event that signals the end of New Horizons crossing of a vast ocean of space to the very frontier of our solar system, and the beginning of the mission’s primary objective: the exploration of Pluto and its many moons in 2015.”


Image: Pluto and Charon, in imagery taken by New Horizons in July of 2014. Covering almost one full rotation of Charon around Pluto, the 12 images that make up the movie were taken with the spacecraft’s best telescopic camera – the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) – at distances ranging from about 429 million to 422 million kilometers. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute.

Not that hibernation is an unusual event for the spacecraft. We’ve followed several cycles here on Centauri Dreams, but it’s startling to realize that New Horizons has gone through eighteen hibernation periods, with two-thirds of its flight time in that state. A weekly beacon stayed alive during these periods, as did the onboard flight computer that broadcast its status tone, but much of the spacecraft was powered down to protect system components. For this special awakening, English tenor Russell Watson recorded a special version of ‘Where My Heart Will Take Me,’ which was played in New Horizons mission operations upon wake-up confirmation.

Pluto observations begin on January 15, with closest approach on July 14, and by mid-May, we will begin receiving views of Pluto and its moons that are higher in quality than anything the Hubble Space Telescope has yet given us. More on the awakening of New Horizons on this JHU/APL page. Meanwhile, the private effort to upload a message from Earth to New Horizons following the end of its science mission continues. If NASA gives the go-ahead, Jon Lomberg’s team will crowdsource content for the One Earth New Horizons Message. A workshop discussing message methods and content just concluded last week at Stanford.

The View from the Asteroid Belt

Speaking of images better than Hubble, we’ve certainly managed that with the Dawn mission, which brought us spectacular vistas from Vesta during its fourteen months in orbit around the asteroid. Now we can look forward to topping Hubble’s views of Ceres, the spacecraft’s next target. Below is an image that, while not yet better than Hubble can manage, does give us an idea of the spherical shape of the asteroid (click to enlarge). Dawn is now 1.2 million kilometers out, about three times the Earth-Moon distance from its target.


Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA.

Dawn will be captured into orbit around Ceres in March, but by early 2015, we’ll be seeing images at higher resolution than Hubble has yet provided. The approach phase begins on December 26, with the nine-pixel-wide image just released serving as a final calibration of the spacecraft’s science camera. With both missions, we are pushing into unknown territory, about to see things in greater detail than our best telescopes can offer. A bit of the old Voyager and Pioneer feeling has me in its grip, a confirmation of our human need to explore and a validation of all the hard work that got us here.


At left is Ceres in the best photo we currently have, a color Hubble image. These observations were made in both visible and ultraviolet light between December 2003 and January 2004, showing brighter and darker regions that may be impact features or simply different types of surface material. 950 kilometers across, Ceres may have an interior differentiated between an inner core, an ice mantle, and a relatively thin outer crust.

Every time I see this image I remember Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination, a 1956 novel in which protagonist Gulliver Foyle takes the pseudonym Fourmyle of Ceres as part of the unfolding of his ingenious plan for revenge. The asteroid pops up in many science fiction tales (Larry Niven’s ‘Known Space’ stories come particularly to mind), but perhaps none as compelling as the one Dawn is about to tell us.


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Andrew LePage December 9, 2014, 15:01

    Next year, with Dawn at Ceres and New Horizons at Pluto, is shaping up to be an important year for the study of the solar system’s dwarf planets. While I am certainly curious to see what Ceres is like, I am especially excited about Pluto. I have been waiting 44 years for a mission to Pluto – ever since I found out that this distant world was on the itinerary for NASA’s “Grand Tour” mission (which was cancelled in 1972 and replaced with the less ambitious Voyager) – and I am looking forward to the New Horizons encounter in seven months. Still, considering how long it took to propose and develop New Horizons, build it, launch it and have it finally reach Pluto, it isn’t to early to start thinking about a follow on mission to Pluto. Considering the extreme changes expected as a result of the shift in seasons and the eccentric orbit, Pluto will likely be a very different place than the one New Horizons will observe after a couple more decades.


  • Enzo December 9, 2014, 19:39

    We’ll see how much Pluto differs from Triton. As for a follow up, join the queue : follow ups to Europa, Titan, and a Uranus/Neptune orbiter should come first. Although, with the current NASA Mars obsession, I would not hold my breath. And Mars Sample Return (MSR) huge cost could set back planetary exploration substantially, just like the recent $5B allocated to Mars alone have done already.
    In the context of declining planetary exploration funds, MSR will be particularly unjustified unless rocks with substantial organic/biological signatures are found.

    I’m more curious about Ceres that could be an Europa/Mars hybrid. It’s unlikely that there are biological implications there, but I hope so.

  • Alex Tolley December 10, 2014, 12:00

    I’m looking forward to the results as Curiosity starts to sample Mt. Sharp at last. If there was every any possibility life existed on early Mars, we may get a chance to see telltale signs in the sediments. If there is nothing, then I agree that we should prioritize other projects with other scientific payoffs.

    I also think that the shortage of Nasa scientific funding is primarily due to spending on manned flight. If we could find a better way to do that, then Nasa could focus much more funding of scientific and “path finding” missions. We’ve discussed so many scientifically interesting projects, from robot explorers of the outer worlds, telescopes that could really show us exoplanets, to propulsion techniques to get instruments and even humans to the stars (and open up the solar system as a “side benefit”). Of course we plough even vaster sums into grossly overcompensating military spending. We really ought to get our priorities right, rather than strutting our military plumage.

  • Wojciech J December 10, 2014, 12:51

    I am excited for Plut, but for pragmatic reasons I want to see Ceres more. With its huge water reserves, low gravity and relatively close location it would make a perfect spot for colonization. A resource colony on the surface and tethered O’Neil type habitat colonies using the resources from below for energy, food and construction.
    Exciting year.

  • James M Essig December 10, 2014, 13:02

    Awesome! Looking forward to some close up images at fly by. It would be interesting if Pluto, Ceres, and the like turned out to have some serious rock in their mantels although even a thick layer of ice would be cool with me. These bodies might support future subterranean colonies and also provide fuel for fusion powered starships.

  • ljk December 11, 2014, 11:30

    Enzo said on December 9, 2014 at 19:39:

    “In the context of declining planetary exploration funds, MSR will be particularly unjustified unless rocks with substantial organic/biological signatures are found.”

    When the two Viking landers returned ambiguous results about any life forms on Mars in the 1970s, NASA did not send another probe to the Martian surface for two decades and only when it was thought that meteorite ALH 84001 contained microfossils from the Red Planet.

    So if a Mars Sample Return mission does happen and the rocks it delivers contain either no signs of native organisms or only ambiguous signs, will this also affect our further ventures to the Red Planet for decades? Everyone wants there to be life on Mars whether there ever was any or not.

    The Soviet efforts for a MSR in the 1970s should also be a cautionary tale for NASA. Their efforts to outshine the Viking probes not only did not get them to Mars, the resources and budget dumped into their MSR affected other deep space missions to Luna and Venus, from poor performances to outright cancellations.


    The few Soviet/Russian efforts to return to Mars since their MSR debacle have all ended disastrously, from Phobos 1 and 2 to the more recent Phobos-Grunt.


  • Enzo December 11, 2014, 15:40


    The problem, is that, at the moment, is even hard to find organics on Mars. Even the latest results from Curiosity are a resounding maybe.
    I heard that MSR would cost ~$6B : can we justify that spending when we don’t even know which rocks to take back ? $6B is a lot of money for a piece of basalt that might or not have come in contact with water.
    ~$6B is the cost of a proper mission to Europa + one to Titan + an orbiter to Uranus or Neptune.
    Find something worth returning first, then we talk about MSR.
    It’s a matter of context : if planetary exploration could afford the equivalent of $100B+ for the space station, than MSR would be an obvious choice, together with Uranus/Neptune orbiters, Pluto follow ups, sampling from Enceladus and Europa landers etc. etc.
    Recently the Planetary Society blog had a most illogical article on this : it spent 2/3 of the article discussing how important finding organics on Mars was, admitting that we haven’t really found them yet and concluding that we should all rally for MSR. How would MSR return something we hadn’t found yet escaped the author.
    I pointed out that, if organics was so important, then a sample return from Enceladus’ geysers was the way to go : we know they throw complex organic molecules at you. Compare this with the maybe results from Curiosity.

    Even if lifeless, Mars should have organics from comets etc., and I would be fairly surprised if it hadn’t had life at some stage (it had some liquid water and probably rocks from Earth). Even if the surface chemistry is hostile to organic compounds now, they might exist somewhere : find them first, then return them.

  • Rob Henry December 11, 2014, 17:45

    ljk, Enzo, may I be so bold as to point out those voyager life tests remain unexplained to this day. It was the only time NASA looked for life as a first priority, and it resulted in a real scientific cliffhanger. We had found soil that both broke down organics, and generated new organics when and only when light (without any uv) was shone upon it. Some details hinted at non-life explanations. Whether it was life or not, they had found something truly amazing. As a school kid, I was excited by what their next step might be as a follow-up, but I was prepared to wait. Now I know, this was to completely ignore it!

  • Eniac December 12, 2014, 0:01


    Everyone wants there to be life on Mars whether there ever was any or not.

    This is not really true. There are at least a few of us who would get concerned if life was found on Mars, on account of it moving the Great Filter into our own future. See here: http://www.nickbostrom.com/extraterrestrial.pdf

  • ljk December 12, 2014, 11:39

    I should have put a qualifier in front of the word “everyone”. I know there are also folks who do not want there to be any living native creatures on Mars as their mere existence might put a stopper on human colonization in order to protect our interplanetary neighbors even if they are just microbes.

    I hope that if life is found on Mars that it is not ignored or deliberately destroyed by those whose zeal for colonizing that planet outweigh scientific discovery. I am reminded of construction workers who deliberately plow over or otherwise steal or destroy ancient artifacts they come across while putting up a new building. Yes there are strict laws against disturbing ancient sites, but since when does that stop certain people? I hope such possibilities do not extend to any life on the other worlds.

    To justify my concerns, you can read about how the different factions feel about Martian organisms here:


    It makes one think that Avatar may one day not be so fictional as humanity spreads out into the galaxy, assuming it is done by humans and not Artilects or something similar. And similar situations may happen if any other species are also big on preserving themselves through interstellar colonization.

    We definitely need to find out what is producing that methane leaking from the Red Planet. Is it geological or organic?

    I am well aware of the Great Filter, though honestly it feels quite counter intuitive to be rooting for NOT finding alien life. I have to wonder if other intelligences are thinking and hoping the same thing? Or perhaps they are not as short-sighted and insecure.

  • ljk December 12, 2014, 11:52

    Rob Henry –

    Yes I was surprised that not only did we not follow up on those strange results found by the Viking landers – scientists seemed to quickly conclude the reactions were “merely” chemical and NASA seemed to suddenly feel they had done all they could with discoveries on the Red Planet – but that those landers were NOT equipped with sensors to determine the mineral constituents of the surface material.

    That just made no sense to me: Wouldn’t such sensors have helped in determining what was inorganic, organic, and actual life, which I thought was the whole point of the mission?

    The paranoid side of me feels like NASA doesn’t want to find life on Mars: There have been images of objects from the MERs that looked like fossils to little old amateur me, but I have never seen any official followup on them. And when the Phoenix lander imaged what even a child could tell were liquid drops accumulating on the robot’s metal legs, NASA was “cautious” to the point of near absurdity before saying it was water in a liquid state. Would they have said we were hallucinating if an actual life form were seen dancing in front of the probe’s electronic eyes?

    Again this is why I bring up my concern that if NASA or someone else is going to spend many billions of dollars and hundreds of human lives to establish a colony on Mars that any creatures in its way may be literally run over to keep those “bleeding hearts” from halting Manifest Destiny. After all, it is going to be rather difficult for Earth authorities to enforce its laws on a settlement that will never get closer than 35 million miles from it.

    As has happened throughout history when it comes to colonization, things will probably get complex and messy even if there are no native tribes sitting on prime real estate.

  • ljk December 12, 2014, 11:58

    And while I am at, why can’t an alien world be an interesting place to explore for its own sake? Why do they always seem to require even the remote possibility of having life before NASA or some other entity deems them worthy of human contact? And I say this as someone who is a huge proponent of searching for extraterrestrial beings in any form.

    Mars has massive volcanoes and a huge canyon. Venus is a wild place with a thick atmosphere saturated with sulfuric acid and an unbelievably hot surface weighed down by some major league air pressure. Saturn has a moon named Methone that looks like a giant egg – it has NO craters or other features! Are these places not deserving of exploration whether anyone organic is home or not? Are we even capable of approaching worlds with potential life and not somehow contaminating or even destroying them in the process even if our intentions are good and we try oh so hard to be cautious?

  • ljk December 12, 2014, 12:02

    One more comment about our approach to searching for alien life in the Sol system. Here is a Centauri Dreams article about the book Unmasking Europa and the author’s concern that our plans for finding life could do far more harm than good:


  • ljk December 22, 2014, 15:01

    Could the Dwarf Planet Ceres Support Life?

    by Mike Wall, Space.com Senior Writer | December 22, 2014 07:36 am ET

    SAN FRANCISCO — A NASA probe is about to get the first up-close look at a potentially habitable alien world.

    In March 2015, NASA’s Dawn spacecraft will arrive in orbit around the dwarf planet Ceres, the largest object in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Ceres is a relatively warm and wet body that deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as the Jovian moon Europa and the Saturn satellite Enceladus, both of which may be capable of supporting life as we know it, some researchers say.

    “I don’t think Ceres is less interesting in terms of astrobiology than other potentially habitable worlds,” Jian-Yang Li, of the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona, said Thursday (Dec. 18) during a talk here at the annual fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union.

    Full article here: