Beyond Pluto with New Horizons

Ron Hobbs has been a NASA JPL Solar System Ambassador almost since that program started just over 20 years ago. What began as an effort to recruit volunteers to help keep people informed about the Galileo mission to Jupiter soon expanded to include most other JPL missions.

“Education and public outreach is very important to NASA,” Hobbs explained. “They’re spending Americans’ money to go out and explore the universe, and they want to make sure that they get the information out to everyone who’s interested in it.”

New Horizons

There’s a lot of interest. Hobbs and I talked recently about New Horizons, which did a historic fly-by of Pluto in 2016 and is now napping while whizzing through space for a New Year’s date with the romantically named 2014 MU69. This object, discovered in 2014 using the Hubble Space Telescope specifically to find a potential place for New Horizons to visit after Pluto, is in a relatively undisturbed part of the Kuiper Belt. Observatoins made of MU69 suggest that it is either oblong or a binary object, perhaps a contact binary. Recent research has suggested that most early planetesimals were binaries.

“It is very likely that it is one of these primordial planetesimals,” Hobbs said. “So in some senses the exploration of MU69 may be more important than the exploration of Pluto. And that’s saying a lot.”

Hobbs shared a couple of favorite bits of information about New Horizons. For one, the spacecraft is carrying human remains.

“Clyde Tombaugh, the discoverer of Pluto, will become the first human being to have their remains interred in interstellar space,” Hobbs noted.

Phair and Stern

New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern presents a plaque to Venetia Burney Phair in December 2006, commemorating the name “Venetia” for the New Horizons Student Dust Counter. Phair passed away in 2009. Photo: NASA

One of the instruments aboard New Horizons is the The Venetia Burney Student Dust Counter, named after the English schoolgirl who suggested the name for Pluto way back in 1930. The instrument was built and managed by students at the University of Colorado.

“It is the first student built instrument on a major NASA probe, ever,” Hobbs said. It’s just one example about how the mission is becoming a world-wide effort. Hobbs marvels that we are all space explorers.

Scientists are searching for another possible target for New Horizons after it does its flyby of MU69. Hobbs said the craft has limited fuel, so it’s unclear how much more it can maneuver.

Listen to the podcast to learn more about New Horizons and how ordinary citizens are participating in science.

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Hobbs also recommends a recent NASA “Gravity Assist” podcast featuring New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern.

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