Lowell Observatory and Flagstaff are playing a major role in the New Horizons mission to Pluto.
Over 85 years after Lowell announced the discovery of Pluto, humankind will finally get its first close-up look at this distant world, and Pluto’s home town of Flagstaff continues to play a prominent role.
New Horizons launched in January 2006 from Cape Canaveral. It takes a long time to travel more than three billion miles, so the team’s philosophy was simple: build the lightest little spacecraft that will get the science job done, put it atop the biggest rocket we can find (in this case, an Atlas V), and fling it toward Pluto as fast as we can. Boosted by a gravity assist from Jupiter 13 months after launch, New Horizons is finally almost to its destination.
Lowell astronomer Will Grundy is a leading Pluto researcher and a member of the New Horizons team, leading the mission’s surface composition team.
Additional support for New Horizons in Flagstaff comes from the United States Geological Survey, where scientists have provided the software that will be used to analyze data coming from New Horizons. The Survey created, maintains, and distributes the software for free to scientists who want to look at spacecraft data of other planets. Other USGS staff are providing what’s called “nomenclature support” to the New Horizons mission by helping round up a collection of appropriate potential names that can be put to craters, mountains or other features on Pluto as the astronomers observe them.
And, New Horizons (or any other spacecraft) needs to know where it’s going, and the high-precision measurements of stellar positions that support accurate spacecraft and satellite positioning and trajectories are provided by the United States Naval Observatory, which maintains a large field station in Flagstaff and the Navy Precision Optical Interferometer at Lowell’s Anderson Mesa research site.