New Horizons Spots Nix and Hydra

With each passing day New Horizons closes in Pluto and sends back more detailed information about the planets moons. The latest imagery is a time lapse stack of images showing the faint glow of light from the moons Hydra and Nix.

The moons Nix and Hydra are visible in a series of images taken at distances ranging from about 125 million to 115 million miles (201 million to 186 million kilometers). The long-exposure images offer New Horizons’ best view yet of these two small moons circling Pluto, which Tombaugh discovered at Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, on Feb. 18, 1930.

Hydra - Nix - Time Lapse Movie

“Professor Tombaugh’s discovery of Pluto was far ahead its time, heralding the discovery of the Kuiper Belt and a new class of planet,” says Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator from Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colorado. “The New Horizons team salutes his historic accomplishment.”

Assembled into a seven-frame movie, the new images provide the spacecraft’s first extended look at Hydra (identified by a yellow diamond) and its first-ever view of Nix (orange diamond). The right-hand image set has been specially processed to make the small moons easier to see.

“It’s thrilling to watch the details of the Pluto system emerge as we close the distance to the spacecraft’s July 14 encounter,” says New Horizons science team member John Spencer, also from Southwest Research Institute. “This first good view of Nix and Hydra marks another major milestone, and a perfect way to celebrate the anniversary of Pluto’s discovery.”

Read the complete article at the: New Horizons Website

A Low Cost Space Lane to Mars

Down the road a bit, we Earthlings will become Marslings. Before the first colony is  established on Mars quite a bit of work will be done to prepare the way for the first settlers . Currently there are thousands of really bright people working on the challenges of reaching Mars. A recent article on ArXiv (at the Cornell University Library) proposes a new way to get there and the best part is that it allows us to launch a mission at anytime and cuts 25% of fuel requirement to do so.

Researchers Edward Belbruno and co-author Francesco Topputo have published a paper detailing this new path to Mars, and the physics behind it. The paper Earth–Mars Transfers with Ballistic Capture , provides a detailed proposal that offers a number of advantages for Mars missions.

Quoting the authors,

This includes substantially lower Dv at higher altitudes, flexibility of launch period from the Earth, gentler capture process, first transferring to locations far from Mars offering interesting new approaches to Mars itself, being ballistically captured into capture ellipses for a predetermined number of cycles about Mars, and the ability to transfer to lower altitudes with relatively little penalty. The initial capture locations along Mars orbit may be of interest for operational purposes.


It is interesting to note that this method has the advantage of allowing a mission to launch at anytime without the usual requirement of waiting for the planet to be in the right position in its orbit using the Hohmann transfer method. This sets up the ballistic capture transfer method as the go to approach for Mars supply missions as they could be launched monthly, creating a supply chain to Mars.

For manned missions this method does require 4-8 months of added time to a typical mission, and this extended mission requirement comes with a host of concerns such as the radiation exposure, added on-board supplies for the travelers, and of course the stress of spending long periods of time in the tight confines of the spacecraft.

While it may not be the best option for manned flight, the ballistic capture transfer method could work well for supplying the Marslings.  The establishment of supply lines to support a colony is nothing new. What is new is the challenge of doing it in space. We know how wagon trains supplied the early settlers of America, the next step is just a planet away.

Ad Astra!

ArXiv: Earth–Mars Transfers with Ballistic Capture

Scientific American: A New Way to Reach Mars

New Horizons at Pluto’s Doorstep

The Kuiper Belt object, Pluto since its discovery in 1930 has revealed little about its characteristics. The NASA/JPL probe New Horizons is now one month away from the start of mission observations of the dwarf planet.

New Horizons has been travelling to Pluto for nearly 9 years. After  a journey of more than 8 years the spacecraft was wakened from hibernation for the last time on December 6th, and is now in the process of preparing all of its sensors for active science operations.

The hope of the mission team is that all of the sensors will work flawlessly over the next 12 months as the spacecraft approaches Pluto, and its 5 moons. Scheduled to flyby Pluto within 7700 miles in July, the craft is currently 130 million miles from its encounter.

The team of scientist and Post Doc researchers hope to answer many questions about Pluto such as:

  • Is it a planet?
  • Are there more than 5 moons?
  • Does it have active surface features?
  • What does it look like?
  • What type of atmosphere does it have?
  • Does it have seasons?

There is concern that as the craft approaches the tiny planet and its moons that obstacles might lay ahead  that could destroy the craft. The team will be performing sensor studies of the path ahead to identify potential obstacles such as dust, tiny debris the size of pebbles, or other potential hazards. If anything is found the craft has enough fuel onboard to adjust the trajectory and avoid hazards.

At the completion of the flyby, the craft will continue to fly on into the Kuiper belt. The Hubble Telescope helped identify several potential targets for New Horizons over the summer. The mission team has yet to pick the follow on target, preferring to stay focused on the mission at hand. Congress would need to allocate funding for the follow on mission.

To learn more about the mission and its current location in space goto:

New Horizons Mission Page