April 17 – “To The Moon, Alice!”

Today’s factismal: The New Horizons probe to Pluto carries a telescope named Ralph and a spectrometer named Alice.

If you grew up in the 1950s or are a fan of the Flintstones, then you probably know all about the eternally loving, perpetually squabbling couple at the center of both stories: Ralph Kramden and his wife Alice. And if you aren’t about all you need to know to understand the New Horizon probes instrument names is that whenever he would get particularly upset, Ralph would hyperbolically threaten his wife by saying “One of these days! Bang! Pow! To the Moon, Alice!”

The New Horizons probe is on a hyperbolic path (Image courtesy NASA)

The New Horizons probe is on a hyperbolic path
(Image courtesy NASA)

And that threat is actually a pretty close description of the New Horizons mission. With a mighty bang, it lifted off from Cape Canaveral on January 19, 2006. Whizzing through empty space at 37,000 mph, it was the fastest spacecraft at launch ever. How fast was it? It was going so quickly that it was guaranteed never to return to the inner Solar System; indeed, it would escape the Sun altogether on what is known as a hyperbolic trajectory. But even that wasn’t fast enough to get the probe to Pluto in a reasonable amount of time (ten years is reasonable, yes?) So the probe’s path was planned to take it past Jupiter where the probe added more velocity to end up moving at an amazing 51,000 mph! To put this into perspective, it would take something moving at that velocity about five hours to cover the distance between the Earth and the Moon.

The New Horizons spacecraft will meet Pluto in two months(Image courtesy NASA)

The New Horizons spacecraft will meet Pluto in two months
(Image courtesy NASA)

And now the probe is finally getting close enough to Pluto to start testing out its instruments, including Ralph and Alice. Ralph will be the workhorse of the probe for the next few months; it is a telescope containing a near-infrared imaging spectrometer (to help understand Pluto’s surface composition) and a a visible-light CCD imager (to take lots of pretty pictures). But Alice won’t be sitting idly by; she’ll use her ultraviolet imaging spectrometer to gather information for scientist studying Pluto’s atmosphere. Unlike Ralph, this won’t be the first “Alice” in space; another one flew on the ESA’s Rosetta mission.

The first color image by Ralph, the probe's camera system (Image courtesy NASA)

The first color image by Ralph, the probe’s camera system
(Image courtesy NASA)

Now the image of Pluto isn’t cool just because it is an image of Pluto (though that is pretty cool). It is also the best image that we’ve ever had of Pluto’s surface. And though it is pretty blurry, the viewing and the pictures will rapidly get much better right up to the point when New Horizons whizzes by Pluto on July 14. And that’s where the citizen science comes in. Because the data will be coming in hot and heavy during the few days when the probe is close enough to get a good view of the planet and its moons, the scientists are lining up the names for those things now – and they want your help! They have set up a web form for us to vote on various names for Pluto’s features and to propose names of our own. Of course, even if a name is popular, that’s no guarantee that it will be used; the IAU (the folks who don’t know what a planet is) overruled the name picked by the discoverer of Pluto’s fifth Moon (Vulcan) for one of their own (Kerberos). But it will still be fun to name the features and learn more about this amazing planet as New Horizons makes a fifty-year old dream come true in three months. For more information, zoom on over to:

One thought on “April 17 – “To The Moon, Alice!”

  1. Pingback: July 14 – Calling All Planets | Little facts about science

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