Upcoming Pluto Flyby is a Rallying Opportunity for Space

After a nine-and-a-half-year journey covering nearly 5 billion kilometers, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft is on the verge of its history-making encounter with Pluto and its moons, the most distant and least-understood planetary system in the solar system.

If all goes well over the next few weeks, New Horizons will make its closest approach to Pluto July 14, passing some 13,000 kilometers from the surface of the icy dwarf planet, inside the orbits of its five known moons. Coincidentally — or not — the encounter will occur on the 50th anniversary of another major first in planetary exploration: the NASA Mariner 4 probe’s flyby of Mars.

For more historical perspective, the last first-time close encounter between a man-made probe and a planet occurred in 1989, when NASA’s Voyager 2 spacecraft passed by the distant gas giant Neptune, Pluto’s closest planetary neighbor. Once New Horizons makes its way past Pluto and into the Kuiper belt of icy bodies, humankind will have completed its initial reconnaissance of the solar system.

For NASA and other space agencies around the world, the scientific community and the space industry, this represents a huge and rare opportunity to engage the public and build support for space exploration.

Every few years or so brings an exploration event that grabs the world’s attention: The European Space Agency’s first-ever landing on a comet last year is a good example; NASA’s 2012 landing of a 1-ton rover on the Martian surface is another.

But New Horizons is different in that it will provide the first close-up of a complex and dynamic planetary body that was only discovered in 1930 and remains so mysterious that scientists are still debating its status as a planet. The largest of Pluto’s five known moons, Charon, was discovered in 1978, while the others — Styx, Kerberos, Hydra and Nix — were discovered within the last decade by astronomers using NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope. Next to nothing is known about these bodies beyond their size and orbits.

Until New Horizons began drawing near its destination, the Earth-orbiting Hubble was the best source for images of Pluto and its moons. These images, which depict color and seasonal variations on the planet’s surface, are not detailed enough to reveal features such as craters or mountains, should they exist on the planet. New Horizons will for the first time bring this distant world into sharp relief, revealing features that can be identified and even compared with those on Earth.

In short, if there is an opportunity in the next decade to whet the public’s appetite for more close encounters with distant worlds, and to inspire a new generation of space scientists and engineers to carry them out, this is it.

New Horizons recently transmitted the first color movies of Pluto and its moon, Charon. Credit: NASA

Which is why the space community should be pulling out all the stops right now to make sure the world is paying attention come July 14. That means alerting media organizations of all types, making experts far and wide readily available for interviews — anything to get the message out.

There are of course risks to hyping deep-space missions in advance. This is why European Space Agency officials deliberately tempered expectations before what ultimately was the successful landing of the Philae probe on Comet 67P. The New Horizons spacecraft still has critical course correcting maneuvers ahead of it and must navigate a field of hazards, potentially including as-yet-undiscovered rings and moons of Pluto. There’s also a chance that the images returned by New Horizons during and after the flyby will be less than spectacular, although it’s difficult to imagine that being the case.

But the real risks have already been taken. NASA has committed some $700 million through 2016 to a probe that, like most deep-space missions, has only one chance to accomplish its goal, in this case at a distance of more that 31 astronomical units, or nearly 5 billion kilometers, from Earth — so far that it takes radio commands 4.5 hours to reach the spacecraft.

If this opportunity to unlock some of Pluto’s mysteries is missed, it likely will be decades before another one of this magnitude presents itself. Given all that’s involved — the investment, the risks, the stakes — the space community cannot afford not to leverage the occasion for all it’s worth.