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Ted Cruz and Star Trek

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 23-Jul-2015 (Updated: 24-Jul-2015 12:40 AM)

While not the same type of space policy pronouncements made by other presidential contenders, Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) expounded on his views of the fictional Captains James T. Kirk and Jean-Luc Picard in an interview with the New York Times published on Thursday.

As a Senator, Cruz has made clear that he believes NASA should focus on space exploration, not earth science and that he is an advocate for commercial space.   He chairs the Space, Science and Competitiveness Subcommittee of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, which sets policy and authorizes funding for NASA. 

Turns out he is also a Star Trek fan with strong views on whether Kirk or Picard is the better character.

In an interview with Ana Marie Cox, Cruz called Kirk "working class" and a "passionate fighter for justice" as compared to Picard, an "aristocrat" and "cerebral philosopher."  He prefers Kirk, adding that he thinks Kirk would be a Republican and Picard a Democrat.

The rather odd exchange did not add much to the knowledge base of what Cruz would do with the space program if he becomes President, but it was fun.

Two other presidential candidates, Jeb Bush (R) and Hillary Clinton (D) have expressed their enthusiastic support for NASA.  Bush was governor of Florida, home of Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and Kennedy Space Center, for eight years.  Clinton wanted to be an astronaut when she was 14.

Soyuz TMA-17M Scheduled to Dock On Time Despite Stuck Solar Panel-UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 22-Jul-2015 (Updated: 23-Jul-2015 02:37 PM)

UPDATE, July 23:   Later reports said the solar array deployed just before docking, not at docking.

UPDATE, July 22, 2015 11:01 pm EDT:  Soyuz TMA-17M docked with the ISS as scheduled.  The port solar array did not deploy during the trip to ISS, but did upon docking.

ORIGINAL STORY, July 22, 2015, 6:50 pm EDT: Three new crew members for the International Space Station (ISS) lifted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 5:02 pm Eastern Daylight Time (EDT) today, July 22, 2015 (which was 3:02 am July 23 local time at the launch site). Once in orbit, one of the two solar panels on the Soyuz TMA-17M spacecraft did not deploy, but NASA says that will not affect the scheduled docking with the ISS at 10:46 pm EDT tonight.

NASA calls this mission Soyuz 43S because it is the 43rd Soyuz launched to the ISS.  In a statement that was posted on its ISS website at about 6:30 pm EDT, NASA said "The Soyuz 43S vehicle has achieved a stable orbit ... and all antennas have deployed.  However, the port solar array ... has not deployed."  It added that the starboard array deployed as expected.  With no explanation, however, by 6:45 pm EDT NASA had edited that statement to delete any reference to the solar arrays, saying only that the antennas had deployed.

Assuming all goes as planned, the three Soyuz TMA-17M crew -- Kjell Lindgren (U.S.), Kimiya Yui (Japan), and Oleg Kononeko (Russia) -- will join Scott Kelly (U.S.), Mikhail Kornienko (Russia), and Gennady Padalka (Russia) who are already on the ISS.  Kelly, Kornienko and Padalka arrived in late March and have been the only three aboard since June 11 when the Soyuz TMA-15M crew returned to Earth.  Kelly and Kornienko are embarked on a one-year mission during which time they will see several crew changes; Padalka will return to Earth in September. Typical ISS crews remain for 4-6 month shifts.  Kelly and Kornienko are staying for a year to enable studies of longer duration missions on human physiology and psychology in preparation for eventual trips to Mars.

The landing of the TMA-15M crew, and the launch of the TMA-17M crew, were each delayed by the failure of the Russian Progress M-27M cargo ship in April.   Russian engineers ultimately decided the Progress M-27M failure was due to a "design peculiarity."   The next in the series, Progress M-28M, was successfully launched on July 3.  The robotic Progress cargo spacecraft and crewed Soyuz spacecraft use different versions of the Soyuz rocket, but the successful Progress M-28M launch helped restore confidence in the Russian systems.

The United States, Russia, Japan, Canada and 11 European countries (through the European Space Agency) are partners in the ISS program.  The ISS has been permanently occupied since November 2000 by international crews on rotating shifts.

Check back here later for updates.


GAO Denies Ball's JPSS Bid Protest, Orbital ATK Resumes Work - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 21-Jul-2015 (Updated: 28-Jul-2015 03:50 PM)

UPDATE, July 28, 2015:  GAO has now released the full text of its decision.  A link is provided below.

ORIGINAL STORY, July 21, 2015.  The Government Accountability Office (GAO) denied a bid protest by Ball Aerospace against NASA's award of a contract to Orbital ATK to build spacecraft for NOAA's Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS).  Details of GAO's ruling have not been released, but the decision to deny Ball's protest was issued on July 16.

Ralph White, GAO's Managing Associate General Counsel for Procurement Law told that the decision is covered by a protective order and GAO is waiting for the parties to "promptly" identify any information that cannot be publicly released.  Once they have received those replies, a redacted version of the decision will be released to the public.

In an emailed statement, White explained that Ball argued that Orbital ATK's "lower-priced, but lower-rated proposal" should not have won because it "violated the terms of the solicitation" and the proposal evaluation "was unreasonable."  GAO found "no basis to sustain the protest," however.  He also said that the delivery order to Orbital ATK is valued at $470 million "while Ball's price for the spacecraft was significantly higher."

JPSS is NOAA's new polar-orbiting weather satellite system, designed for the civil sector after the NOAA-DOD-NASA National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) program was cancelled due to years of schedule delays and cost overruns.   JPSS is a NOAA program, but NASA is the satellite procurement agent for NOAA and thus the JPSS contract is controlled by NASA.

To accelerate the availability of JPSS-1, NASA awarded a sole source contract to Ball Aerospace to build another spacecraft similar to that used for NASA's Suomi-NPP, which is now in orbit. JPSS-1 is scheduled for launch in 2017.

This contract is for JPSS-2, with options for JPSS-3 and JPSS-4.   Congress is providing full funding for JPSS-1 and JPSS-2, but is less enthusiastic about funding JPSS-3 and JPSS-4, which is called the Polar Follow On (PFO) in NOAA's FY2016 budget request.  NOAA is requesting $380 million for PFO in FY2016.  The House zeroed the request in its version of the FY2016 Commerce-Justice-Science appropriations bill.  The Senate Appropriations Committee recommended $135 million.

JPSS-2, however, is in fine shape budgetarily.  NOAA wants to launch it no later than the fourth quarter of FY2021.   NASA awarded the contract to Orbital ATK on March 24, 2015, but work was suspended on April 8 after Ball filed its protest.   NASA spokesman Stephen Cole said that NASA notified Orbital ATK on July 17 that the suspension was lifted and directed the company to resume work.

The contract is valued at $253 million for JPSS-2 and $217 million for JPSS-3 and JPSS-4 options.  Orbital ATK will design and fabricate the spacecraft, integrate government-furnished instruments, conduct satellite-level testing and support in-orbit check-out and mission operations, the company said when the contract was awarded in March.  The spacecraft is based on the LEOStar-3 platform used for several NASA satellites, including Fermi, Swift, Landsat-8, and ICESAT-2, as well as commercial imaging and defense satellites.

Orbital ATK Space Systems Group Director of Communications Vicki Cox said today that the company is resuming work pursuant to NASA's direction and looks forward to providing "critical weather forecasting data for the next several decades."

Ball Aerospace Media Relations Manager Roz Brown said via email that while the company is "obviously disappointed" with the result, it appreciates the GAO review process.  She added that the company has the option of asking for reconsideration after reviewing the public version of the decision, but "we have no present intention to ask" for it.  She also said that the company hopes to have the public version in a week to 10 days.

On July 28, GAO released the full text of its decision.

For more on NOAA's satellite programs, see our fact sheet "NOAA's FY2016 Budget Request for Satellites."

Failed Strut Likely Cause of Falcon 9 Failure, But Investigation Continues

Laura M. Delgado
Posted: 21-Jul-2015 (Updated: 21-Jul-2015 12:49 AM)

SpaceX’s Elon Musk told reporters during a media teleconference that preliminary conclusions point to an upper stage strut that “broke free” as the likely cause of the Falcon 9 failure on June 28.  He did not state when the rocket would return to flight, only that it would not be before September.

Musk said that initial assessments point to the failure of a metal strut inside the rocket’s upper stage as the likely cause of the explosion that destroyed a Dragon spacecraft carrying cargo bound for the International Space Station (ISS).  It was the company’s seventh operational cargo resupply mission for NASA under the Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract – SpaceX CRS-7 or SpX-7.  (Musk and other SpaceX officials use "second stage" and "upper stage" synonymously when referring to the segment that failed.)

Musk explained that the steel struts are designed to hold high-pressure helium bottles inside the upper stage’s liquid oxygen tank, but that one of them snapped while the stage was accelerating. When the strut broke, the helium bottle “shot to the top of the tank at high speed,” overpressurizing the tank and likely causing the explosion.

The strut, which is provided by a supplier that Musk did not want to name to avoid unnecessary “recrimination,” failed at 2,000 lbs of thrust - five times below what it is designed to withstand. SpaceX has been able to replicate the failure, conducting tests on thousands of these struts and finding that a few others snapped at a point far below their rated force level. As a result, Musk said SpaceX will move to individual testing of each strut independent of outside certification. This, he said, will result in a cost increase, but not “of a significant amount” so that the price of the vehicle should remain unaffected.

Musk said that the failed strut was the “most probable, but not definitive outcome” of the ongoing investigation, noting that there is still work to do.  Investigators are still puzzling over telemetry data that shows a drop in helium pressure, and then a rise back to starting pressure, something he described as “quite confusing.”  Analysis is ongoing.

The investigation also revealed that if the Dragon had deployed its parachutes before falling into the ocean, the spacecraft would have survived. The software in this cargo version of Dragon (Dragon 1), Musk explained, is inert on ascent and was not programmed to release the parachute in the event of a failure.  Software in the version of Dragon under development for taking people into space (Dragon 2 or Crew Dragon) is programmed to do just that.  Musk said they would be working on software fixes to ensure that the Dragon 1 cargo spacecraft can do what it needs to survive. “We could have saved Dragon if we had the right software there,” he said.

Musk said SpaceX customers, including NASA and the U.S. Air Force, had been briefed and were very supportive, indicating “no diminished faith in SpaceX.”

He indicated that return to flight would happen no sooner than September and that who the next customer will be is not clear. While addressing the strut issue is “fairly straightforward” Musk said he wants to ensure the issue is diagnosed correctly and that flights do not resume without everyone being “on board” with the changes.  In a press release issued after the media teleconference, the company said it expects to "return to flight this fall and fly all the customers we intended to fly in 2015 by the end of the year."

This was SpaceX’s first launch failure in seven years, and the only one for the majority of its 4,000 employees who joined the company during that time.   Musk noted that to some degree the company became “a little bit complacent,” and that this failure was an “important lesson” moving forward.

SpaceX said in its press release that the failure was "regrettable," but the review process ultimately will "yield a safer and more reliable launch vehicle."

What's Happening in Space Policy July 20-24, 2015

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 19-Jul-2015 (Updated: 19-Jul-2015 12:47 PM)

Here is our list of space policy related events for the week of July 20-24, 2015 and any insight we can offer about them.  Congress is in session this week.

During the Week

SpaceX will hold a telecon with media representatives tomorrow (Monday) at noon Pacific Time (3:00 pm ET) to discuss preliminary findings from its investigation of the June 28, 2015 SpaceX CRS-7 launch failure.  The emailed announcement says it is for media only and will last 30 minutes, which does not allow much time for Q&A, but undoubtedly will be of great interest.

Meanwhile, NASA and Rocosmos are getting ready to launch Soyuz TMA-17M with three new crew members to the International Space Station (ISS) on Wednesday Eastern Daylight Time (where it already will be Thursday local time at the launch site in Kazakhstan).  NASA astronaut Kjell Lindgren, JAXA astronaut Kimiya Yui, and Roscosmos cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko will join three colleagues (NASA's Scott Kelly and Roscosmos' Mikhail Kornienko and Gennady Padalka) already on board, restoring the crew complement to its usual six.  The TMA-17M launch was delayed following the Progress M-27M launch failure in April. 

NASA said on Friday that it would have another press briefing on the results from the New Horizons flyby of Pluto this coming Friday, but the time and other details have not been announced yet.

Those and other events coming up this week that we know about as of Sunday morning are listed below.

Monday, July 20

Tuesday, July 21

Tuesday-Wednesday, July 21-22

Tuesday-Thursday, July 21-23

Wednesday, July 22

Thursday, July 23

Friday, July 24

  •  NASA Briefing on Results from New Horizons Pluto flyby (tentative, details TBD)

Hillary Clinton: "I Really, Really Do Support the Space Program"

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 17-Jul-2015 (Updated: 17-Jul-2015 02:34 AM)

Hillary Clinton became the second of the 2016 presidential candidates to offer strong support for the space program.  Speaking at a town hall meeting in Dover, NH, today she explained not only why she supports investing in space exploration, including the need to track asteroids, but repeated the story of her desire to become an astronaut when she was a teenager.

Clinton responded to a question about her views on the space program -- which began with a shout out from the questioner for the New Horizons mission to Pluto -- by saying "I really, really do support the space program."

She recounted the story.of how she wrote to NASA when she was about 14 asking what she needed to do to become an astronaut.  NASA replied that they did not accept applications from.girls.  After lauding the fact that that changed as demonstrated by Sally Ride and other woman astronauts, Clinton said she clearly would not have qualified anyway and has not lost any sleep over it.

She continued to talk for several minutes about the need for the government to invest in the space program along with other science and technology activities for many reasons, including economic benefits and discovery.   She also mentioned security and in that vein noted in particular the need to track asteroids. 

"I think [the space program] is a good investment, so on my list of things that I want our country to invest in, in terms of research and innovation and .... basic science, exploring space, exploring our oceans, exploring our genome.  We're at the brink of all kinds of new information.  Let's not back off now!"

The questioner had asked if the time has come for space activities to be done by corporations instead of the government.  Clinton said she has nothing against partnering with corporations, but "they are more in the applied science arena,  not in the discovery and research arena that I think only the government can support."

The town hall meeting was broadcast by C-SPAN.

Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush expressed his support for the space program last week.

Data Reveal Ice Mountains on Pluto

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 15-Jul-2015 (Updated: 15-Jul-2015 04:10 PM)

The scientific data being received from the New Horizons spacecraft are giving scientists a lot to think about.  Only a small amount has made to back to Earth, but it is revolutionizing theories about Pluto and its moons.

At a press conference this afternoon at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab (JHUAPL) in Laurel, MD, which is operating the spacecraft, Principal Investigator (PI) Alan Stern and other team members showed some of the imagery obtained yesterday as New Horizons made its closest approach to Pluto.   The imagery for Pluto is 10 times better resolution than what was released yesterday and the image the scientists focused on today is just a small part of it, slightly to the left of the center at the bottom.

Surface of Pluto.  Imagery from NASA's New Horizons spacecraft.  Photo credit: NASA 

Among the "astonishing" aspects of the image is that there are no impact craters, meaning that geological processes on the planet are ongoing and creating a new surface.  John Spencer of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) said the surface may be only 1 million years old, whereas the solar system is 4.5 billion years old.   Also, there are mountains on the surface. At the moment, they speculate they are made of water ice.

Spencer said that means Pluto is the first icy world that is not orbiting another planet (like Jupiter and Saturn) and the surface features therefore are not the result of tidal heating (from interaction with the large planet).  That will "send geophysicists back to the drawing board," Stern exclaimed.

Surprising information was also revealed about Pluto's moon Charon.  It, too, has a young surface with many features including canyons, but not the craters they'd expected from billions of years of collisions with other objects. New Horizons deputy PI Cathy Olkin said the image "blew our socks off." 

Pluto's moon Charon.  Image from NASA's New Horizons spacecraft.  Photo credit: NASA

Pluto was discovered by astronomer Clyde Tombaugh and the heart-shaped region that appears in the image released yesterday has been named Tombaugh Regio in his honor.

Much more data is yet to be received on Earth and scientific analysis takes time, so stay tuned for more results.

New Horizons Phones Home, Science Data To Come Beginning Tomorrow

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 14-Jul-2015 (Updated: 14-Jul-2015 10:41 PM)

NASA's New Horizons spacecraft restored contact with Earth just as planned tonight, sending an "all's well" signal at 8:52:37 pm Eastern Daylight Time (EDT).

New Horizons is the first spacecraft to visit Pluto and its moons after a nine-and-a-half year journey that culminated in a close flyby about 7,750 miles above Pluto's surface at 7:50 am EDT this morning.  The spacecraft was busy collecting science data for several hours and, coupled with the 4.5 hour one-way signal travel time from Pluto to Earth, the signal arrived this evening.

The spacecraft had sent a great deal of data -- including tantalizing images --  before the closest approach sequence began, but the highly prized close approach data will start streaming back to Earth in a few hours.  The next signal acquisition will be at 5:50 am EDT tomorrow morning (July 15) and last several hours.  That is just the beginning though -- it will take 16 months to get all the data back.  The maximum data rate is 4 kilobits/second.

NASA has processed imagery acquired before the closest approach in "false color" to highlight differences in surface material and features on Pluto and its moon  Charon.   

Pluto and its moon Charon in false color imagery to highlight differences in surface materials and features.
Distance between the two objects was reduced for side-by-side comparison.
Photo credit:  NASA

The false color image shows, among other things, that the heart-shaped feature observed in an earlier image is composed of different materials on the western and eastern sides.   What it all means requires further analysis.

Another NASA briefing is scheduled for 3:00 pm EDT tomorrow.  Check back here for updates.

Pluto Shows Its Heart in New Image from NASA

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 14-Jul-2015 (Updated: 15-Jul-2015 09:18 AM)

The latest image of Pluto taken by NASA's New Horizons spacecraft shows a heart-shaped feature on the surface.  The photo was taken last night and transmitted back to Earth just before it turned to face Pluto for its closest encounter, which took place at 7:50 am Eastern Daylight Time (EDT) this morning.  The spacecraft will turn back to Earth and resume transmitting data at 8:53 pm EDT tonight - an anxiously awaited "phone home" transmission that will tell mission managers that all is well.

New Horizons has been sending back data about Pluto for weeks that is "better than Hubble" -- better than what can be observed using the Hubble Space Telescope in Earth orbit -- and the latest image is the sharpest yet of the surface of Pluto.   Once the 9th planet in the solar system, it was redesignated as a "dwarf planet" by the International Astronomical Union in 2006, though many people, including New Horizons Principal Investigator (PI) Alan Stern and NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, still call it a planet. 

Image of Pluto taken by NASA's New Horizons spacecraft on July 13, 2015 Eastern Daylight Time.  Image credit NASA.

Scientists do not yet know what surface characteristics are creating the heart-shaped feature.  Higher resolution data that the spacecraft took today and will begin sending back to Earth tomorrow hopefully will solve that mystery.  The spacecraft was intended to come as close as 7,750 miles (12,472 kilometers) from Pluto's surface, but data from the spacecraft already revealed that the planet is slightly larger than expected.  Stern said that meant they came 70 kilometers (43 miles) closer.

The spacecraft and Pluto are 3 billion miles (4.9 billion kilometers) from Earth and it takes 4.5 hours for a radio signal to travel that distance at the speed of light, meaning a 9-hour two-way signal travel time.   In the early phases of this closest approach to Pluto, the spacecraft's antenna along with its instruments were pointed at Pluto so data could not be sent back to Earth. In the later phases underway now, it has turned back this way, but is busy collecting science data looking at Pluto's atmosphere, in particular, from the far side back towards the Sun. 

Once it has completed those scientific measurements, it will resume transmissions to Earth.  That moment -- the "phone home" signal -- is at 8:53 pm EDT tonight.  NASA's next televised media briefing begins at 8:30 pm EDT and lasts through that critical moment.

Because of data rate limitations, the first signal will be only a 15 minute burst of engineering data revealing the spacecraft's health.  Science data will follow.   NASA and the project's scientists have prioritized what data to return first since it will take a total of 16 months to return all the data that was collected.   The maximum data rate is 4 kilobits per second according to Alice Bowman, mission operations manager at the Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Lab (APL) in Laurel, MD.  APL built and operates the spacecraft for NASA.

Yesterday, Stern and Deputy PI Cathy Olkin cautioned against making snap judgments about what they think they may be seeing in the images and other data.  Stern repeated that today when asked if the surface features reveal evidence of tectonics.  "I'm not sure, is the honest answer," he replied, because the data need to be properly processed and studied.

Stern was asked again about the possibility that the spacecraft might have encountered debris as it passed by Pluto with mission-ending consequences.  He again downplayed that possibility (although yesterday he said it was a 1 in 10,000 possibility and today he said 2 in 10,000).   No one will know for sure until 8:53 pm EDT tonight.

To guard against such a possibility, though, the spacecraft collected and sent back to Earth "fail safe" data sets before the black-out period.  We have "obviously revolutionized knowledge" about Pluto already, Stern said, but stressed that 99 percent of the data are still on the spacecraft and there would be "great disappointment" if it was lost.

Stern noted that exactly 50 years ago today, NASA's Mariner 4 spacecraft made the first successful flyby of Mars and it is "fitting today that we complete the exploration of the planets."

Correction: Two typos were corrected regarding the distance to the spacecraft and Pluto: they are 3 BILLION miles (4.9 BILLION kilometers from Earth).

New Horizons Just Hours Away From Closest Approach to "Enchanting" Pluto

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 13-Jul-2015 (Updated: 13-Jul-2015 03:18 PM)

NASA's New Horizons spacecraft is closing in on Pluto and its five moons after a nine-and-a-half year journey.  Alan Stern, principal investigator (PI) for the mission, refers it as the "Pluto system," an "enchanting" place. Closest approach to Pluto is at 7:50 am Eastern Daylight Time (EDT) tomorrow, July 14, but it will not be until 8:53 pm EDT that scientists will know that the encounter took place as planned.

NASA is holding a series of media briefings today, tomorrow and Wednesday covering the encounter.   At this morning's briefing, Stern and deputy PI Cathy Olkin, both from the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), discussed what they have learned about Pluto in recent days, though Stern cautioned that time is needed to fully analyze the data before making final conclusions:  "Science on the fly is often wrong," he warned, and they will stick to the facts for now. 

Pluto and New Horizons are 3 billion miles (4.9 billion kilometers) from Earth and it takes a signal 4.5 hours to travel that far (meaning a 9-hour two-way signal travel time).   That plus limited data rates mean that it will take a long time to get back all the data the spacecraft is collecting -- 16 months, Olkin said.  For now, the focus is high priority data, including imagery.  Right now, they are prioritizing black and white imagery from the LORRI instrument that requires many fewer bits than color imagery.  That is why so many of the images publicized in recent days have been in black and white, but Olkin promised new color images tomorrow.

That will be from data taken before the closest encounter, however.   The spacecraft's instruments and antenna will be pointed toward Pluto and its moon Charon during the flyby tomorrow, which begins at 7:50 am EDT, so it cannot send data back to Earth.  Not until the data are collected and the spacecraft is past Pluto will it turn to face Earth so the antenna can transmit data home.  At that moment, it will be only an engineering signal, not scientific data.  

NASA will broadcast media briefings tomorrow from 7:30-8:00 am EDT, 8:00-9:00 am EDT, 8:30-9:15 pm EDT and 9:30-10:30 pm EDT to discuss the mission's progress.  A key one will be the 8:30-9:15 pm briefing during which time the signal should be received that the spacecraft got through the encounter OK.

One concern is that there may be debris around Pluto that could interfere with the spacecraft as it flies past, but Stern downplayed that today.  He said the area of greatest concern is as the spacecraft crosses Pluto's equatorial plane, but it is not a big worry.   Stern said there is only a 1 in 10,000th chance of loss of mission because of a debris interaction and he is not going to lose any sleep over it.

Stern called the data from New Horizons a "gift for the ages."  Recent "mouth-watering" scientific findings are that:

  • Pluto is bigger than expected, 1,185 kilometers in radius (plus or minus 10 kilometers), meaning that it is less dense than scientists thought;
  • Pluto's polar cap is, indeed, made of ice -- methane ice and nitrogen ice; and
  • Nitrogen escaping from Pluto's atmosphere was detected 5 days out, much earlier than expected.

He and Olkin were reluctant to discuss the implications of these findings yet, but the data appear tantalizing.

Stern often calls New Horizons a lesson in delayed gratification because it took so long to reach Pluto.  Unlike other deep space missions, including ESA's Rosetta mission that took even longer to reach its destination, there has been little for New Horizons to study along its journey.  It has not passed anything of scientific interest for the past 8 years.   Stern said he and the New Horizons team feel like they've been on an escalator for all that time and now have stepped onto a supersonic transport, exclaiming at one point: "Fasten your seatbelts, New Horizons has arrived at the Pluto system!"

Events of Interest

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