Astrophysics App Specialist Plans Pluto-Palooza with Mobile New Horizons Tracker

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WASHINGTON — A software developer that specializes in astrophysics simulations is hoping to rally support for science and space exploration with its free mobile app, Pluto Safari, which tracks the New Horizons spacecraft as it zooms ever closer the distant dwarf planet.

Pedro Braganca, program manager at Minnetonka, Minnesota-based Simulation Curriculum, said in an interview that the idea for the free app came in January, when his team was looking at the calendar of 2015 space events. New Horizons stood out as a particularly important mission.

“This was a great event to rally around,” he said. “It’s a true journey of discovery.”

Braganca said the development team used existing simulation software in conjunction with telemetry data from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, to build the app in about six weeks. Available for both Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android operating systems, Pluto Safari has garnered about 70,000 downloads across Google Play and iTunes, Braganca said.

Pluto Safari lets users explore three dimensional models of the New Horizons spacecraft, Pluto and its moons, and the entire solar system with an overlay of New Horizon’s nine-and-a-half-year trajectory. The app also details the mission’s history and the spacecraft’s design, and provides a countdown to the upcoming Pluto flyby on July 14.

The app also collects polling data from users, asking the question: Is Pluto a planet? As of July 8, 69 percent of the participants said yes, while 31 percent said no. The results of the poll will be submitted to the International Astronomical Union, which reclassified Pluto as a dwarf planet in 2006.

Credit: Simulation Curriculum
Screen grab of the app’s poll. Credit: Simulation Curriculum

The primary goal for developing the app, Braganca said, was to bring more attention to the New Horizons mission. “My biggest fear is that people won’t care,” he said.

The app has also caught the attention of NASA officials working on the New Horizons program. Alan Stern, principal investigator of the mission, has retweeted several of Simulation Curriculum’s tweets about the app. The company’s twitter handle is @skysafariastro.

When New Horizons reaches Pluto, Braganca said that he and his team are planning to celebrate the flyby with a “Pluto-Palooza.”

Even after New Horizons reaches pluto and ventures into the Kuiper belt, Braganca says his team plans to continue updating the app with New Horizons’ high-resolution images of Pluto.

There are New Horizons mobile apps besides Pluto Safari, including the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory’s free Apple iOS app, New Horizons: a NASA Voyage to Pluto. Another Android app, Waiting for Pluto, offers similar functionality to Pluto Safari, but costs $2.49.