This month, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft will fly by Pluto, providing scientists with some of the most detailed images of the planet they’ve ever had. Astronomers believe the data collected on the mission could provide them with clues about the formation of our solar system.
Two University of Virginia researchers will be part of the historic mission, piecing together some of the data coming into the Johns Hopkins Applied Research Lab from more than 4 billion miles away.
Probes have gathered data and taken pictures of every other major body in the solar system, said Anne Verbiscer, an astronomer at UVa. Though there is still some controversy over whether Pluto is a full or dwarf planet, this still represents an important milestone.
“It’s our last ‘first’ look,” Verbiscer said. “In a broad sense, it completes the initial reconnaissance of the solar system, although there are some places we’ve only seen parts of, such as the moons of Uranus.”
The latest data will take time to get to Earth. It’s likely researchers will be putting the pieces together over the next six months, although Verbiscer and UVa planetary geologist Alan Howard will be at Johns Hopkins in Maryland for much of this month, taking in some initial impressions and sharing them with the public.
Verbiscer is filling multiple roles in the mission. In the days leading up to July 14 — which is when the probe will be closest to Pluto — she will be assessing the risk of hazards — objects that could hit the probe during its flight.
Then she will assist the Composition and Geology and Geophysics teams. Both groups will assess the surface of Pluto and its moon Charon and look for hints on what they are made of and how they evolved.
“You’re kind of being a detective,” Howard said. “You’re trying to infer, based on what you can see, what might’ve happened in the past.”
Howard, who began his career studying the Earth’s geology, said he’ll be applying some of the same principles to his study of Pluto and Charon. He’s looking for signs of erosion, asteroid impacts, ice deposits and eruptions of nitrogen on the surface.
That’s what he expects to see, but “every time we go to a new place in the solar system, we find surprises,” Howard said.
After flying by Pluto, New Horizons will venture farther into the outer reaches of the solar system, also known as the Kuiper Belt, and provide a glimpse at the small bodies inhabiting the region. Those bodies, mostly chunks of ice and rock known as “primitive objects” because they have been affected less by the sun, could hold clues about the formation — or at least the very early years — of the solar system.
“The Kuiper Belt … is like an archaeological dig for the solar system,” Verbiscer said. “The record of the early history of the solar system is preserved in the dynamical and physical properties of these objects.”
One of the immediate questions researchers want to answer is how Pluto’s moons were formed.
Howard said the likely answer is “some sort of giant collision” that may account for many bodies in the outer part of the solar system, including Triton, the largest moon of the planet Neptune. Scientists have long hypothesized that Uranus may have gotten its odd tilt from such a collision or series of collisions, he said.
These are the sorts of questions that have long eluded astronomers. The New Horizons mission, which began about nine years ago, is a high priority for scientists because it brings them a step closer to answering a fundamental question: How did we get here?
“Our whole space program is about understanding how the universe we live in has come to be,” Howard said.