NASA has released a stunning 3-D animation of the New Horizons historic journey past Pluto in July with real images taken by the spacecraft.
The 24-second animation begins with New Horizons’ approach toward Pluto on July 14. Charon, the largest of Pluto’s five moons, is seen in its counterclockwise orbit. As the spacecraft flies past Pluto, it captures a solar occultation – when the sun passes behind the planet – before zooming farther into space.
Stuart Robbins, the NASA scientist who created the video, writes on a blog that he made several tweaks to the timescale and other variables to improve its cinematic quality.
Beyond that, everything about the movie is accurate: The Pluto hemisphere we see on closest approach, the lighting and shadows, the atmosphere’s size (though its brightness has been increased), the orbits of the satellites, the colors are our best estimate for what your eye would see, and so on.
The final result is the system as New Horizons saw it at the beginning of July 2015, flying to Pluto for its close-up on July 14, complete with the best maps we have to-date. It’s an incredible look at [a] system we are unlikely to revisit in our lifetimes – though we have the potential to visit other bodies farther still from the sun with the craft as it continues to reveal new horizons in our solar system.
As New Horizons’ continues its voyage into deep space, NASA announced last week that it would next travel to 2014 MU69, a small Kuiper Belt object (KBO) that orbits nearly a billion miles beyond Pluto. The spacecraft is expected to reach it on January 1, 2019.
However, the new mission must undergo a review process by an independent team of experts to obtain additional funding for scientific research. The New Horizons’ team is scheduled to turn in an official proposal next year.
“2014 MU69 is a great choice,” Principal Investigator Alan Stern said in a statement. “This KBO costs less fuel to reach [than other candidate targets], leaving more fuel for the flyby, for ancillary science, and greater fuel reserves to protect against the unforeseen.”