GI Space Physicist Anticipates Next Year's Spacecraft Rendezvous with Dwarf Planet Pluto

Jan 21, 2014

Fairbanks, AK -  A NASA spacecraft is headed for the outer reaches of the solar system. That’s the topic of a lecture hosted by the Geophysical Institute tonight.  It is slated to rendezvous with Pluto in the middle of next year.

In January 2006, NASA launched the New Horizons Spacecraft. It’s headed for the dwarf planet Pluto.
“Some people refer to 2014 as ‘Pluto Eve.’ It’s the year before the encounter," says Peter Delamere.  He's an Associate Professor of Space Physics with the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. He’s working on the New Horizons Mission.  It’s slated to pass over Pluto in June or July of 2015. “One of the primary scientific goals is to understand Pluto’s atmosphere," he explains.

That’s how Delamere got involved.  He studies space plasma. "It’s the aurora.  I study auroral physics.  I study the gases in space that give us the northern lights.”

Auroras form when gases mix with solar wind, but there also needs to be a magnetic field, which Pluto doesn’t have.  Delamere says it’s unlikely he’ll discover an aurora, but scientists believe there’s other information that might help explain how Earth’s atmosphere developed. “It’s thought that perhaps this type of atmosphere because of weak gravity is in a state of hydrodynamic escape, meaning it’s just being blown off," explains Delamere.  "It’s so interesting because there is an idea that the early pre-biotic, terrestrial atmosphere was in the same state of hydrodynamic escape, so from the perspective of studying Earth’s atmosphere, studying Pluto’s is very interesting.”

New Horizons is the first spacecraft in 30 years to visit a new object in space and Delamere says some of the information it will gather could be invaluable. "One of the greatest pieces of data that we can deliver to the public with this mission is an image from the surface of Pluto," he says.  "There’s been a lot of artistic renderings, of what it might look like, these icy surfaces, are there clouds?  Is there weather?  What’s happening there? How can we envision what this world looks like that far from the sun?”

A telescopic optical instrument will record those images.  Delamere says it could take up to a year to get them back from the spacecraft.