New Horizons is a long way away

By Phil Plait | January 14, 2010 7:52 am

I follow the New Horizons Pluto probe Twitter feed, and recently it linked to a graphic showing where the spacecraft is right now:

nh_position_jan2010

Man, is that way out in the black. The probe is now closer to the orbit of Uranus than it is to Saturn, though both planets are over a billion kilometers away from New Horizons right now.

The solar system is frakkin’ BIG (if I may mix my colorful scifi metaphors). If you’re still not sure just how roomy things are out there, even at its current speed of 16.5 km/sec (10 miles/sec) — fast enough to cross the entire United States in five minutes — New Horizons won’t pass the orbit of Uranus until March 18, 2011, more than a year from now. Neptune’s orbit isn’t until August 24, 2014.

One thing to notice: from this point of view, planets revolve around the Sun in a counterclockwise fashion. Given the position of Pluto, you can see the two are heading for a close encounter soon. Well, for a sufficiently broad definition of "soon": July 14, 2015.

Space is big.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, Space

Comments (54)

  1. Charles Boyer

    We are so lucky to be living in the age where we can actually see wonders like Pluto.

    Makes me think that if we avoid blowing ourselves up, killing each other off or drowning in a sea of Woo what the future holds for those who live in it.

    Maybe we’ll get to actually touch those places.

  2. In the black. Way out in the black. So cool… Go baby, go!

  3. FC

    Can’t wait for the awesome pics of Pluto’s surface. We’ll finally be able to make an accurate board/video/PC game based on Pluto :D

  4. James H.

    Its too bad there is no way to slow it down for Pluto to capture it. That would be pretty cool to be able to spend time in orbit to really have some time to check out Pluto and its moons. I’m looking forward to the first pictures as well.

  5. Brian Schlosser

    Methinks the Mi-Go will not look kindly on our impudent spying on their Yuggothian dwellings…

  6. The Guide

    “Space,” it says, “is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly hugely mindboggingly big it is. I mean you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist, but that’s just peanuts to space.”

  7. Yes, space is big. I mean you may think it’s a long walk down the road to the chemist, but that just peanuts compared to space.

  8. Swift

    Are we there yet?

  9. Space is big.

    Space is dark.

    It’s hard to find

    A place to park.

    Burma Shave.

  10. Trucker Doug

    Thanks for this. It’s so easy to lose perspective on just how big things are out there.

  11. Raskolnikov

    “Thanks for this. It’s so easy to lose perspective on just how big things are out there.”

    Especially after we’ve got the logarthmic picture of the universe. It’s nice to have a pic that contains everything, but it makes you forget how big everything is.

    The thought is sometimes very depressing.

  12. WJM

    Actually, on a cosmological scale, the solar system is quite small.

    Just don’t ask me to paint it.

  13. T.E.L.

    One way to look at it is that space is large. Another way is that spacecraft are slow.

  14. Greg in Austin

    Interesting: At 16.5 km/s, NH is moving about 3.5 times faster than Pluto at 4.67 km/s. Looking at the graphic, NH is about 3 times the distance to their meeting point than Pluto. Neat!

    Now I have to go find out if NH is going to actually slow down and orbit around Pluto for a while, or if its just going to fling past it and continue into deeper space…

    8)

  15. T.E.L.

    Greg,

    It’ll do that fling-past thing. To keep the Mission within budget the spacecraft is stripped down to just instruments, a power supply, and some small RCS thrusters. A delta-v budget big enough to settle it into orbit would make it too costly.

  16. DeanFromBC

    T.E.L. at 13: even at light speed, space is Big. With a capital B. ;)

    It’s funny: religious people despair at our insignificance and seek comfort and meaning in their gods, but I (and I suspect most here) marvel and see wonder in it. I have no need to seek meaning in the universe. I am thrilled to be living in an era when we are learning so much about it.

  17. tacitus

    There was never a chance that the first mission to Pluto would insert into orbit around it. It would have either taken a colossal amount of fuel or a route that would have taken decades to get there, and neither was remotely possible.

  18. kevbo

    Just some small RCS thrusters?

    How do they plan to dodge all them Reavers out there?

  19. Folks down the road from y work were the primary contractors on one of the mirrors in the probe. They have all sorts of cool pictures in their facility.

    I’m sure that once the probe passes Pluto, there will still be sience to do. You just never know what else is there.

  20. T.E.L.

    kevbo Said:

    “How do they plan to dodge all them Reavers out there?”

    The main strategy has been to hide all traces of meat aboard New Horizons, to keep it out of their sphere of interest. What meat there is (mostly bacon) has been carefully sealed against the leakage of meaty aromas. Once NH is done with Pluto, the raw flesh can be unpacked and the party will commence.

  21. tacitus

    There will indeed be more science to do beyond Pluto. There this an ambitious secondary mission to flyby at least one more KBO after the Pluto encounter. Telescopes will begin the hunt for reachable targets in another year or thereabouts, so when the time comes to program in the post-Pluto trajectory they will have a suitable flight-path mapped out.

  22. Stan9FOS

    For more perspective on how big the distances are, see author Charles Stross’ blog entries about the (non) feasibility of interstellar travel and “starships.” A sobering read for those who grew up with the Star Trek/Wars/etcetera frame of reference.

  23. If you got in an airplane (which typically travels at 500 mph) and tried to fly to Pluto, it would take 650 years. And that’s with no layovers.

    BIG.

  24. Nicole

    Can we say that NH is FAR?

    Far far far away?

    Like uber-far?

  25. Ken

    Actually I think I’m rather big relative to the universe.
    I am pretty awesome.
    It’s all about significance, not size.

    No.
    Wait.
    I looked at the numbers.
    Turns out it’s all totally about size.
    Universe wins!

  26. WJM

    Mmmmm…. space bacon… rghrghghghrggrghrrhghrghrgrlllrgrlgrlgrlgrlr

  27. WJM

    I booked a flight to Pluto once, but they routed me through Atlanta, so I said to hell with it.

  28. kevin b halse

    someting i found:

    “If the Milky Way galaxy was the size of a grain of salt, the visible universe would be about 3 [American] football fields wide.

    If our solar system was the size of a gain of salt, the Milky Way galaxy would be 24 miles in diameter.

    If earth were the size of a grain of salt, our solar system would be 2 football fields wide.

    If a hydrogen atom was the size of a football field, the nucleus would be the size of a grain of salt.

    If the nucleus of a hydrogen atom was the size of a football field, a quark would be the size of a golf ball.

    If a hydrogen atom is the size of our solar system, a superstring [assuming the string theory is correct] would be about the size of a tree [give or take a leaf]

  29. Greg in Austin

    Ok, so the NH is NOT going to stop at Pluto. I totally understand the reasons.

    I just find it funny.

    Launch…
    Wait… Wait… Wait… Wait… Wait…
    THEREITISQUICKTAKEAPICTURECLICKWEPASSEDIT!
    Wait… Wait… Wait… Wait… Wait… (forever)

    8)

  30. 25. WJM Says: “I booked a flight to Pluto once, but they routed me through Atlanta, so I said to hell with it.”

    After you die, it doesn’t matter if you’re going to heaven or hell, you still have to go through Atlanta (quote from another frequent flier).

    – Jack

  31. 26. Greg in Austin Says:
    “Launch…
    Wait… Wait… Wait… Wait… Wait…
    THEREITISQUICKTAKEAPICTURECLICKWEPASSEDIT!
    Wait… Wait… Wait… Wait… Wait… (forever)”

    ROTFL!

    The last time I was on the “Star Tours” ride in D’Land there were two guys in the back who would normally be really annoying, except their commentary was so good. One of them did a perfect Wookie noise as we went into “hyperspace”, and the other shouted “Oh, no! We passed it!” as we went flying past Endor after coming out.

    – Jack

  32. Could almost do a ballute braking Pluto lander once we understand Pluto’s atmosphere better thanks to NH. Unfortunately we now know that there’s a spot on the Moon that’s colder than Pluto’s surface… so the lander site will no longer be the COOLEST vantage point in Sol-Space!

    The view will be magnificent.

  33. Woo hoo! In 2015, we’re going to get our first close-up look at a KUIPER BELT OBJECT!

    { rubs salt in the wounds of the Pluto-as-planet crowd }

  34. Wally

    What I want to know is if the star-field in the diagram is in any way accurate, or just splice from a 1980’s video-game.

  35. MadScientist

    @tracer: is it really a Kuiper belt object?

  36. T.E.L.

    MadScientist,

    NH will take data on Pluto and, afterward, on as many other small bodies as can be fitted to its flight plan. These data will help determine if there’s something characteristic of the small objects out at that distance to place them in a class of their own. Then we’ll know if it’s reasonable to call Pluto a KBO.

  37. Plutonium being from Pluto

    Cool news & post. Thanks BA :-)

    @ 33. tracer Says:

    Woo hoo! In 2015, we’re going to get our first close-up look at a KUIPER BELT OBJECT!
    { rubs salt in the wounds of the Pluto-as-planet crowd

    Bzzzt. Wrong. For starters its the *Edgeworth*-Kuiper belt and, for seconds, Pluto is still a planet. A dwarf one in your eyes maybe but a proper planet nonetheless.

    After all, you wouldn’t call a dwarf star a non-star would you?

    And Pluto is a hell of a lot more than just a EKBO / TNO.

    The IAU clearly got it wrong & its ridiculous definition which is illogical and unscientific as well as undemocratic and highly dubious will, I feel confident, be corrected in time hopefully sooner rather than later.

    Pluto is indeed a planet by any reasonable definition of the word. The fact that IAU wouldn’t know a planet if they were standing on one is their fault not Pluto’s. ;-)

    What’s that you want a reasonable definition then? Try this : A planet – to me and many others – is an object that

    a) has never shone by nuclear fusion thus is not a star,
    b) has enough mass to be spherical through its own gravity thus is not an asteroid or comet &
    c) orbits the Sun directly rather than orbiting another planet thus is not a moon.

    There’s one simple, clear and logical definition for y’all which will hopefully be adopted when the IAU finally see sense. (Or when the IAU are just ignored as irrelevant self-appointed nobodies and lose their percieved “authority” which only comes from conscensus and may be happening already in light of their anti-Pluto stupidity.)

    Wait till New Horizons passes Pluto and gets images of Pluto and its moons and atmosphere, weatehr incl. snowfall and possibly rings too and we’ll see how many still think the anti-Pluto IAU was right then – I’m guessing hardly anyone at all! ;-) :-P

    Pluto is both a planet ( ice dwarf variety) *and* orbiting in the Edgeworth-Kuiper belt zone of our solar system just as Jupiter is both a planet and one that orbits in our solar systems gas giant zone & Earth is both a planet and one that orbits in our solar systems rocky planet zone.

    Where a planet orbits doesn’t make it any less of a planet.

    Put Earth or even Jupiter where Pluto orbits & they’d be considered mere “dwarfs” by IAU rules too – and that as I’m sure even the worst of Pluto-bashers has to admit is just plain dumb! ;-)

    A planet’s a planet no matter how small! ;-)

    ***********

    PS. Oh & if this means we have many more than just 9 planets in our solar system so what? Is that meant to be a bad thing? :roll:

    I’d say it makes more sense to consider planetary types as well as numbers & say we have three main types of planets –

    1. rocky (eg. Earth, Mercury, Mars),
    2. gassy (eg. Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune)
    &
    3. icy (Pluto, Eris, Sedna)

  38. Alasdair

    Counter-clockwise? I thought it was relative. I look at the solar system from “the bottom” and I see clockwise rotation.

  39. @ 36.Plutonium being from Pluto Says:

    I totally agree and I have a question.
    now I may be wrong on this but it was my understanding that Pluto was “kicked out” because it wasn’t alone in it’s orbit around the sun (not sure of the exact wording).
    Now I could also be wrong (and please feel free to correct me) but isn’t Jupiter’s orbit also shared by the Trojan asteroids???????????????
    Does that mean Jupiter is no longer a planet?????

    Either way, I can’t wait to finally see good pikkies of Pluto.
    Thank you New Horisons team.

  40. k9_kaos

    It’s interesting, too, that New Horizons is now closer to Pluto than it is to Earth. Pretty cool stuff.

  41. @39. John McBryde: Earth has Trojans too IIRC. But Jupiter, unlike Pluto, is a dominant mass on its orbit.

  42. Plutonium being from Pluto

    ^ Well Pluto’s pretty dominant where Nix & Hydra and even Charon are concerned! ;-)

    Neptune apparently has even more trojans than Jupiter too …

    From : http://www.space.com/scienceastronomy/070130_st_neptune_trojans.html

    “Neptune may have up to twenty times as many Trojan asteroids sharing its orbit as Jupiter according to a study by Scott Sheppard of the Carnegie Institution of Washington and Chadwick Trujillo of the Gemini Observatory in Hawaii using the 6.5-meter Magellan telescope in Chile. D.”

    Then too, all planets have asteroids and comets crossing their orbits so a strict adherence to IAU diktats mean there are NO planets in our solar system! Not a one – incl. Earth and Jupiter!

    After all what does a “clear” orbit mean and how is that to be defined? How clear? For how far? For how long? All needless and unnecessary superflous questions that are raised by that ludicrous illogical and unscientific IAU decree.

    If a moon can be a moon when its a co-orbital moon – sharing its orbit with another like, for instance, Janus & Epimetheus around Saturn why the blazes can’t a planet can be a planet with other stuff sharing its orbit as all planets have anyhow?

    @ 39. John McBryde Says:

    @ 36.Plutonium being from Pluto Says: I totally agree and I have a question.
    now I may be wrong on this but it was my understanding that Pluto was “kicked out” because it wasn’t alone in it’s orbit around the sun (not sure of the exact wording).

    Thanks. :-)

    The third criteria which was deliberately imposed solely to exclude Pluto was some nonsense (quite literally non-sense) about planets needing to have “cleared their orbits” – which, as has been mentioned and as you’ve rightly said, is stupid because *all* planets have objects in their orbits from Pluto crossing Neptune’s orbit to sun-grazing comets crossing Mercury’s orbit & Jupiter, Earth and many other planets having bodies in a 1:1 orbital resonance or – in plain English – sharing their orbits with other objects.

    That IAU “orbital clearing” criteria is vague, hard to determine, hard to define, arbitrary and discriminates against planets with larger orbits because their larger orbits mean they have a lot more space to clear. It fails the basic logic test of reductio ad absurdam and is just plain stoopid. Why the IAU – or at least the tiny minority of it that actually got to vote on the anti-Pluto definition – chose to support it I just cannot see. :-(

    Hopefully they will correct this obvious mistake and error of judgement sooner rather than later. ;-)

  43. Plutonium being from Pluto

    To clarify from my last post :

    ***

    After all what does a “clear” orbit mean and how is *that* to be defined? *How* clear is “clear”? For how far out does it have to be clearered *to*? For how long must it stay clear or be clear before a planet can be declared a “planet”?

    All these unanswerable questions with answers that are demanded but yet are entirely unclear and arbitrary are raised by that ludicrous, illogical and unscientific IAU decree.

    However these questions and the complications and problems they raise are needless, unnecessary and superflous if we use any sane definition of “planet” instead of the ridiculous IAU anti-Pluto one.

    ***

    Hope that makes more sense now & is clearer. Wish I got more time to edit here – say half an hour rather than 15 min. ;-)

    Some of us make more typos than others – mea culpa. :-(

  44. Messier Tidy Upper

    One of astronomy’s great ironies is that Pluto was long seen as an unusual oddball planet and an anomalous problem that needed explaining – perhaps as it being an escaped moon of Neptune – when it was the one & only known example of its type.

    But, once we realised Pluto was not a lone oddball; that there were a whole lot of “ice dwarf” worlds like it & once we came to sort of understand where it came from, *then* & only then because we knew of more worlds in its class did we decide to demote it.

    Just when Pluto finally made sense in terms of the solar systems archetecture, did we drop it.

    Now New Horizons is going visiting it we’re going to see it in a new light again.

    I can’t wait and I can’t believe that when we see what an amazing world Pluto promises to be that we ‘re NOT going to reinstate it to planetary ranks once again.

  45. I actually did the math for a blog post about the size of space once. Never did the post itself, but I concluded that the volume of Earth in the Solar System is about the same proportion as a single drop of water in the Pacific Ocean. That’s big! And, of course, that’s just our Solar System. Beyond that is the Milky Way, our local cluster of Galaxies and the rest of the Universe. I’ve often wondered if interstellar space travel might be impossible not just because of the time it would take, but because of navigational difficulties. If you went to a star on the far side of the Milky Way, how would you find your way back to Earth?!!!

  46. Astroquoter

    23. Carey Says:

    If you got in an airplane (which typically travels at 500 mph) and tried to fly to Pluto, it would take 650 years. And that’s with no layovers. BIG.

    Cool. :-)

    What’s your source for that if I may ask?

    A few interesting quotes that also put things in perspective here:

    “Space isn’t remote at all. Its only an hour away if your car could go straight upwards.”
    – Page 43, Sir Fred Hoyle, ‘The Wonderful World of Space’, Heather Couper, Octopus Books, 1980.

    But …

    “If it were possible to drive straight from the Earth to Neptune, taking the shortest possible route and keeping up a steady 60 m.p.h., the journey would take nearly 5,200 years.”

    – Page 57, ‘The Sky at Night’, Patrick Moore, WW. Norton & Co, 1986.

    &

    Since our Sun was formed more than 4 billion years ago, it has travelled around the Galaxy 16 times.
    “Two of the Milky Way’s Spiral Arms Go Missing” , NASA e-newsletter news release 2008-June-4th.

  47. Astroquoter

    Here’s a few more quotes that make you really think about the scale of the universe & the sheer immensity of space :

    “If you put three grains of sand inside a vast cathedral, that cathedral will be more densely packed with grains of sand than stars are found apart in space.”
    – Sir James Jeans, British astronomer, quoted on page 28, ‘Skywatching’, David H. Levy, Ken Fin Books, 1995.

    “…about 40 supernovae are exploding somewhere in the universe every second. However, light from most of these events won’t reach Earth for billions of years, if ever.”
    – Page 73, “Ask Astro” in ‘Astronomy’ magazine October 2008.

    “Cosmology also tells us that there are perhaps 100 billion galaxies in the universe and that each contains roughly 100 billion stars. By a curious co-incidence, 100 billion is also the approximate number of cells in a human brain.”
    – Page 237, ‘StarGazer’, Dr Fred Watson, Allen & Unwin, 2004.

  48. Astroquoter

    Oh & here’s a few quotes of thought-provoking nature on Pluto and another “dwarf planet” :

    “…Marc Buie [astronomer specialising in Pluto – ed] can very easily imagine what it must be like to walk around on Pluto: with less than 1% of your weight on Earth because of the low gravity, at temperatures of 230 degrees below zero, in the twilight because the Sun is nothing more than a dazzling star in the black sky, across snowfields of methane ice and transparent crystals of frozen nitrogen and with a gigantic moon hanging overhead – at least if you are on the right side of the planet.”
    – Page 61, ‘The Hunt For Planet X’, Govert Schilling, Copernicus Books, 2009.

    “… he had left out a planet. It was not his fault; everyone leaves it out. I leave it out myself when I list the nine planets, because it is the four-and-a-halfth planet. I’m referring to Ceres; a small but respectable world that doesn’t deserve the neglect it receives.”
    – Page 63, chapter 5 “The World Ceres” in ‘The Tragedy of the Moon’ by
    Isaac Asimov, Mercury Press, 1973.

    Once thought to be rocky, we now believe Ceres may contain 200 million cubic kilometres of water in its mantle. This is more than the amount of fresh water on the Earth.
    – Page 10, “Ceres may be a failed miniplanet” by Jeff Foust in Astronomy Now magazine, November, 2005.

    @ 28. kevin b halse Says:

    Something I found:

    “If the Milky Way galaxy was the size of a grain of salt, the visible universe would be about 3 [American] football fields wide. If our solar system was the size of a gain of salt, the Milky Way galaxy would be 24 miles in diameter. If Earth were the size of a grain of salt, our solar system would be 2 football fields wide. … etc … ”

    Great size comparisons – thanks! :-)

    Where did you find that out – please could you let me know what your source(s) was for that?

  49. Messier Tidy Upper

    @ 32. Adam Says:

    Could almost do a ballute braking Pluto lander once we understand Pluto’s atmosphere better thanks to NH. Unfortunately we now know that there’s a spot on the Moon that’s colder than Pluto’s surface… so the lander site will no longer be the COOLEST vantage point in Sol-Space!

    There’s somewhere on our Moon that’s even colder than Pluto? Really? Where? I missed that news.

    I’m guessing it must be in one of those permanently shadowed craters where they think there might be lunar water ice .. right?

    Can’t help think there must be similar craters out on Pluto that should be even colder! ;-)
    ‘Spose we’ll have to wait for New Horizons to get there to find out ..if then.

    Oh & “ballute” – what’s that mean? I’m scratching my head over that one.

  50. T.E.L.

    Messier,

    A ballute is an aerobreaking device. If you watch the movie 2010, the spaceship Leonov uses a ballute, a big inflated balloon, to increase the ship’s surface area and induce drag in the Jovian upper-atmosphere. It bleeds off orbital energy without using costly rocket propellant.

  51. Messier Tidy Upper

    @ 50 T.E.L. : Thanks for that! You learn something new each day – that was mine for today. :-)

  52. 51. Messier Tidy Upper Says: “Thanks for that! You learn something new each day – that was mine for today.”

    The weird name comes from a contraction of “balloon” and “parachute.” The only thing in that movie is that they were also using it as a heat shield in the front which would be a control problem beyond imagining, not to mention having to get rid of all that heat without “popping” the balloon.

    They were invented for (and this is really what they’re called) “retarded bombs,” i.e. bombs that you want to drop at relatively low altitudes and not have shrapnel from the detonation hit your plane. The ballutes pop out the back and inflate into a really high-drag configuration that slows the bomb down in a hurry without all of the high-speed deployment problems of parachutes, not to mention simpler one-piece construction.

    – Jack

  53. Messier Tidy Upper

    @ ^52 Jack Hagerty : Thanks. :-)

  54. Glauco

    Maybe New Horizons will find another moons. Can’t wait to see Pluto’s images.

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