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Fran Bagenal, New Horizon’s co-investigator talks about the New Horizons mission and the importance of knowing more about Pluto.
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George Diller: With plans in place for an extended trip to the Kuiper Belt, the New Horizons mission will open the door of possibilities for space exploration. It will give us an opportunity to discover and learn more about our solar system.

Bruce Buckingham: 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. We have ignition, and liftoff of NASA's New Horizons spacecraft on a decade-long voyage to visit the planet Pluto, and then beyond!

Diller: I'm George Diller at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

After a successful launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, NASA's New Horizons spacecraft is speeding toward the frontier of space...to Pluto and beyond.

Dr. Fran Bagenal, mission co-investigator from the University of Colorado, is in the studio to talk about this exciting mission.

How far is Pluto from the Earth and how long will it take New Horizons to get there?

Dr. Fran Bagenal: Pluto has a variety of distances from the sun and from Earth because it’s not in a circular orbit. It’s an oblong or eccentric orbit, and so it moves from a distance 30 times the distance from the Earth to the sun, to 50 times the distance between the Earth and the sun. Now, we all know that the distance between the Earth and the sun is 93 million miles. It’s something we learned at school. So, if you do the math and multiply the distance that we will actually fly by Pluto -- that’s 31 times the distance between the Earth and the sun -- by that 93 million miles, you will get 3 billion miles. So, Pluto will be 3 billion miles away from Earth when we fly by.

Diller: Why do we want to know more about Pluto?

Bagenal: We want to know a lot of Pluto because we’ve never really got a good view of what it looks like; even with the best telescopes, even with the Hubble Space Telescope, it just looks like a fuzzy blob. So we are really in an exploration phase of trying to understand this planet...get our first glimpse of what the surface looks like. See whether there are craters or volcanoes, or frost or cracks. You know, what does it look like on the surface?

We want to know what it’s made of, so we’ll make measurements of the surface composition. Is it water ice? Is it nitrogen ice? Is there carbon dioxide, and so on and so forth. We want to look at chemical composition. We’ll also be making measurements of the atmosphere. It has a very tenuous atmosphere. So we’ll be making measurements to see what it is made of and what it’s like, and whether or not it gets frozen onto the surface as the planet moves away from the sun.

Diller: What does New Horizons hope to find?

Bagenal: One of the things NASA wants to find out is whether or not Pluto has any more moons. Now, very recently, we have discovered that there are two new moons discovered with the Hubble Space Telescope. And so, now we are thinking, are there more moons? Are there three? Four? Five? Many? Or are there rings? Could little Pluto have little rings around it, just as Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune have rings?

So NASA wants to do the basic exploration it does when it first goes to a planet, which is to check it out to see what is there and do an inventory of what we might want to go back later and do a more thorough study of.

Diller: What is the Kuiper Belt and why is it important to know more about it?

Bagenal: The Kuiper Belt has been discovered fairly recently. The first object was discovered in the Kuiper Belt about 1992. So this is something like the asteroid belt but much, much further out. It’s out beyond the orbit of Neptune, and Pluto is the king of the Kuiper Belt. It’s the biggest object we have found so far, though we think there may be other objects maybe as big as Pluto. Right now, we think there are about 1,000 objects spread between 30 and 50 times the distance between the Earth and the sun, and there could be many more.

Diller: Will the spacecraft orbit around Pluto?

Bagenal: Unfortunately, we can’t do that and the reasons are quite simple. The reason is that Pluto has such little gravity that it is very hard to stop, slow down and get into orbit around Pluto. So we’ll fly by, and then the other advantage of just doing a flyby in this first glance of the planet is we can then go and see if we can get a glimpse of another Kuiper Belt object. So it has a silver lining. We will go and see if we can find other objects and fly by past them too.

Diller: Thank you, Fran.

Additional information about the New Horizons mission is available online at: nasa.gov/newhorizons.

Thank you for listening to this podcast from NASA's Kennedy Center in Florida. I'm George Diller.

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