Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

ALMA Pinpoints Pluto to Help Guide NASA’s New Horizons Spacecraft

07.08.2014

Astronomers using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) are making high-precision measurements of Pluto's location and orbit around the Sun to help NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft accurately home in on its target when it nears Pluto and its five known moons in July 2015.

Though observed for decades with ever-larger optical telescopes on Earth and in space, astronomers are still working out Pluto's exact position and path around our Solar System. This lingering uncertainty is due to Pluto's extreme distance from the Sun (approximately 40 times farther out than the Earth) and the fact that we have been studying it for only about one-third of its orbit. Pluto was discovered in 1930 and takes 248 years to complete one revolution around the Sun.


B. Saxton (NRAO/AUI/NSF)

The cold surface of Pluto and its largest moon Charon as seen with ALMA on July 15, 2014.

“With these limited observational data, our knowledge of Pluto’s position could be wrong by several thousand kilometers, which compromises our ability to calculate efficient targeting maneuvers for the New Horizons spacecraft,” said New Horizons Project Scientist Hal Weaver, from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland.

The New Horizons team made use of the ALMA positioning data, together with newly analyzed visible light measurements stretching back nearly to Pluto's discovery, to determine how to perform the first such scheduled course correction for targeting, known as a Trajectory Correction Maneuver (TCM), in July. This maneuver helped ensure that New Horizons uses the minimum fuel to reach Pluto, saving as much as possible for a potential extended mission to explore Kuiper Belt objects after the Pluto system flyby is complete.

To prepare for this first TCM, astronomers needed to pinpoint Pluto's position using the most distant and most stable reference points possible. Finding such a reference point to accurately calculate trajectories of such small objects at such vast distances is incredibly challenging. Normally, stars at great distances are used by optical telescopes for astrometry (the positioning of things on the sky) since they change position only slightly over many years. For New Horizons, however, even more precise measurements were necessary to ensure its encounter with Pluto would be as on-target as possible.

The most distant and most apparently stable objects in the Universe are quasars, galaxies more than 10 billion light-years away. Though quasars appear very dim to optical telescopes, they are incredibly bright at radio wavelengths, particularly the millimeter wavelengths that ALMA can see.

“The ALMA astrometry used a bright quasar named J1911-2006 with the goal to cut in half the uncertainty of Pluto's position,” said Ed Fomalont, an astronomer with the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Charlottesville, Virginia, and currently assigned to ALMA’s Operations Support Facility in Chile.

ALMA was able to study Pluto and its largest moon Charon by picking up the radio emission from their cold surfaces, which are about 43 degrees Kelvin (-230 degrees Celsius).

The team first observed these two icy worlds in November 2013, and then three more times in 2014 -- once in April and twice in July. Additional observations are scheduled for October 2014.

"By taking multiple observations at different dates, we allow Earth to move along its orbit, offering different vantage points in relation to the Sun," said Fomalont. "Astronomers can then better determine Pluto's distance and orbit." This astronomical technique is called measuring Pluto's parallax.

"We are very excited about the state-of-the-art capabilities that ALMA brings to bear to help us better target our historic exploration of the Pluto system," said New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado. "We thank the entire ALMA team for their support and for the beautiful data they are gathering for New Horizons."

The National Radio Astronomy Observatory is a facility of the National Science Foundation, operated under cooperative agreement by Associated Universities, Inc.

The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), an international astronomy facility, is a partnership of Europe, North America and East Asia in cooperation with the Republic of Chile. ALMA is funded in Europe by the European Southern Observatory (ESO), in North America by the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) in cooperation with the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) and the National Science Council of Taiwan (NSC) and in East Asia by the National Institutes of Natural Sciences (NINS) of Japan in cooperation with the Academia Sinica (AS) in Taiwan. ALMA construction and operations are led on behalf of Europe by ESO, on behalf of North America by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO), which is managed by Associated Universities, Inc. (AUI) and on behalf of East Asia by the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NAOJ). The Joint ALMA Observatory (JAO) provides the unified leadership and management of the construction, commissioning and operation of ALMA.

New Horizons is the first mission to the Pluto system and the Kuiper Belt of rocky, icy objects beyond. The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) manages the mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate; Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), is the principal investigator and leads the mission. SwRI leads the science team, payload operations and encounter science planning; APL designed, built and operates the New Horizons spacecraft. New Horizons is part of the New Frontiers Program managed by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. For more information, visit http://pluto.jhuapl.edu.

Contact Information

Charles Blue
cblue@nrao.edu
Phone: 434-296-0314
Mobile: 202-236-6324

Charles Blue | newswise

Further reports about: Astronomy Earth Observatory Pluto Sun construction telescopes

More articles from Physics and Astronomy:

nachricht Attosecond camera for nanostructures
31.05.2016 | Max-Planck-Institut für Quantenoptik

nachricht Rosetta’s comet contains ingredients for life
30.05.2016 | Universität Bern

All articles from Physics and Astronomy >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Attosecond camera for nanostructures

Physicists of the Laboratory for Attosecond Physics at the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics and the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität Munich in collaboration with scientists from the Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg have observed a light-matter phenomenon in nano-optics, which lasts only attoseconds.

The interaction between light and matter is of key importance in nature, the most prominent example being photosynthesis. Light-matter interactions have also...

Im Focus: Worldwide Success of Tyrolean Wastewater Treatment Technology

A biological and energy-efficient process, developed and patented by the University of Innsbruck, converts nitrogen compounds in wastewater treatment facilities into harmless atmospheric nitrogen gas. This innovative technology is now being refined and marketed jointly with the United States’ DC Water and Sewer Authority (DC Water). The largest DEMON®-system in a wastewater treatment plant is currently being built in Washington, DC.

The DEMON®-system was developed and patented by the University of Innsbruck 11 years ago. Today this successful technology has been implemented in about 70...

Im Focus: Computational high-throughput screening finds hard magnets containing less rare earth elements

Permanent magnets are very important for technologies of the future like electromobility and renewable energy, and rare earth elements (REE) are necessary for their manufacture. The Fraunhofer Institute for Mechanics of Materials IWM in Freiburg, Germany, has now succeeded in identifying promising approaches and materials for new permanent magnets through use of an in-house simulation process based on high-throughput screening (HTS). The team was able to improve magnetic properties this way and at the same time replaced REE with elements that are less expensive and readily available. The results were published in the online technical journal “Scientific Reports”.

The starting point for IWM researchers Wolfgang Körner, Georg Krugel, and Christian Elsässer was a neodymium-iron-nitrogen compound based on a type of...

Im Focus: Atomic precision: technologies for the next-but-one generation of microchips

In the Beyond EUV project, the Fraunhofer Institutes for Laser Technology ILT in Aachen and for Applied Optics and Precision Engineering IOF in Jena are developing key technologies for the manufacture of a new generation of microchips using EUV radiation at a wavelength of 6.7 nm. The resulting structures are barely thicker than single atoms, and they make it possible to produce extremely integrated circuits for such items as wearables or mind-controlled prosthetic limbs.

In 1965 Gordon Moore formulated the law that came to be named after him, which states that the complexity of integrated circuits doubles every one to two...

Im Focus: Researchers demonstrate size quantization of Dirac fermions in graphene

Characterization of high-quality material reveals important details relevant to next generation nanoelectronic devices

Quantum mechanics is the field of physics governing the behavior of things on atomic scales, where things work very differently from our everyday world.

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

Networking 4.0: International Laser Technology Congress AKL’16 Shows New Ways of Cooperations

24.05.2016 | Event News

Challenges of rural labor markets

20.05.2016 | Event News

International expert meeting “Health Business Connect” in France

19.05.2016 | Event News

 
Latest News

Better combustion for power generation

31.05.2016 | Power and Electrical Engineering

Stick insects produce bacterial enzymes themselves

31.05.2016 | Life Sciences

In a New Method for Searching Image Databases, a Hand-drawn Sketch Is all it Takes

31.05.2016 | Information Technology

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>