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 Knots in chaotic waves
29.07.2016 | University of Bristol

nachricht International team of scientists unveils fundamental properties of spin Seebeck effect
29.07.2016 | Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz

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: Self-assembling nano inks form conductive and transparent grids during imprint

Transparent electronics devices are present in today’s thin film displays, solar cells, and touchscreens. The future will bring flexible versions of such devices. Their production requires printable materials that are transparent and remain highly conductive even when deformed. Researchers at INM – Leibniz Institute for New Materials have combined a new self-assembling nano ink with an imprint process to create flexible conductive grids with a resolution below one micrometer.

To print the grids, an ink of gold nanowires is applied to a substrate. A structured stamp is pressed on the substrate and forces the ink into a pattern. “The...

Im Focus: The Glowing Brain

A new Fraunhofer MEVIS method conveys medical interrelationships quickly and intuitively with innovative visualization technology

On the monitor, a brain spins slowly and can be examined from every angle. Suddenly, some sections start glowing, first on the side and then the entire back of...

Im Focus: Newly discovered material property may lead to high temp superconductivity

Researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Ames Laboratory have discovered an unusual property of purple bronze that may point to new ways to achieve high temperature superconductivity.

While studying purple bronze, a molybdenum oxide, researchers discovered an unconventional charge density wave on its surface.

Im Focus: Mapping electromagnetic waveforms

Munich Physicists have developed a novel electron microscope that can visualize electromagnetic fields oscillating at frequencies of billions of cycles per second.

Temporally varying electromagnetic fields are the driving force behind the whole of electronics. Their polarities can change at mind-bogglingly fast rates, and...

Im Focus: Continental tug-of-war - until the rope snaps

Breakup of continents with two speed: Continents initially stretch very slowly along the future splitting zone, but then move apart very quickly before the onset of rupture. The final speed can be up to 20 times faster than in the first, slow extension phase.phases

Present-day continents were shaped hundreds of millions of years ago as the supercontinent Pangaea broke apart. Derived from Pangaea’s main fragments Gondwana...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

Clash of Realities 2016: 7th Conference on the Art, Technology and Theory of Digital Games

29.07.2016 | Event News

GROWING IN CITIES - Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Urban Gardening

15.07.2016 | Event News

SIGGRAPH2016 Computer Graphics Interactive Techniques, 24-28 July, Anaheim, California

15.07.2016 | Event News

 
Latest News

Vortex laser offers hope for Moore's Law

29.07.2016 | Power and Electrical Engineering

Novel 'repair system' discovered in algae may yield new tools for biotechnology

29.07.2016 | Life Sciences

Clash of Realities 2016: 7th Conference on the Art, Technology and Theory of Digital Games

29.07.2016 | Event News

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>