NASA New Horizons Mission Prepares for Historic Pluto Approach

… and you can be a part of it!

Photo by Tom Atkinson @r3digital

You might have noticed a bit of a trend recently with Mendeley supporting some cool space-themed events, such as a talk by Apollo 11 Astronaut Buzz Aldrin (pictured below presenting a much-coveted “Get your Ass to Mars” t-shirt to Professor Stephen Hawking) and a debate at the Cambridge Union Society, which explored the issue of whether space exploration is worth the cost.

Image Courtesy of the Cambridge Union Society @cambridgeunion

The answer, it turned out, was a resounding “YES”. Dr Christine Corbett Moran, a computational astrophysicist who defended the value of space exploration in that debate, outlined the huge impact that space exploration research has had, which go well beyond the many well-known consumer applications such as non-stick pans:

“Nigeria launched its first satellite in 2003, and China, India and others strive to replicate and expand achievements in technology and science to drive space exploration forward. India’s space program and satellite constellations allow it to survey natural resources, enable communications, have disaster management support perform meteorology, and do pilot programs in tele-education and tele-medicine for an underserved population.”

The inspiration for supporting these initiatives came not only from our community of researchers in fields such as Astrophysics, but from talking to NASA’s Science Program Manager Adriana Ocampo, last year. And so, when Mendeley decided to sponsor the space exploration debate at Cambridge, she was naturally invited as one of the speakers on the proposition side. Although unable to attend as originally planned, Dr. Ocampo has since extended a very special invitation to the Mendeley team, which means some of us will get the chance to be present at NASA HQ to witness the Pluto New Horizons Encounter. A first-ever achievement for humankind.

The New Horizons mission was launched back in January 2006, and after nearly a decade and 3 billion miles travelled, the craft will finally approach Pluto in July 2015. After passing the Dwarf Planet and its five moons (The first 5 people to correctly Tweet the names of all those moons to @Mendeley_com with the hashtag #PlutoEncounter will get a bag of Mendeley goodies, by the way) the probe will continue to travel at a speed of 26,7000 mph along the Kuiper belt, which is located past Neptune’s Orbit.

new horizon
Image Courtesy of NASA @NASANewHorizons

It is difficult to overstate how exciting such an event is, as it represents the culmination of so much effort over many years of work and research. As Professor Stephen Hawking recently said in a post on his Facebook page:

“This would have been the subject of science fiction when I was at school, but is now science fact. I feel proud and honoured for such a momentous scientific mission to be completed within my lifetime, and plan to celebrate in my own way, with a Pluto party in July. My congratulations to everyone on the New Horizons team. With imagination and determination, it is humbling to see what we are capable of”.

This will be the first time ever we’ll be able to see Pluto as more than a tiny little speck, so we don’t know exactly what to expect. And that, according to Ralph McNutt, of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), is one of the great things about such ground-breaking endeavours: “we don’t know exactly what we’ll see, but we know from decades of experience in first-time exploration of new planets that we will be very surprised”.

What does emerge very clearly from all the discussions we’ve had around space exploration is impacts all of society, and how the research output it generates is truly cross-disciplinary and collaborative. This is why we want to share the amazing experience with our entire Mendeley community. So watch this space and our social media channels for lots more on the Pluto Encounter, and please do share your thoughts, questions and ideas with us too! We’d specially love to hear from researchers, in any discipline, who felt the influence of space exploration research in their own work. Start the conversation on Facebook and Twitter using the #PlutoEncounter hashtag.