P-4 days: Navigating Pluto

We are the Navigators. We say where we are and where we’re going.

Where are we? As of midnight this morning, July 10th, we were 5.2 million kilometers away, eating up those remaining kilometers at the rate of 1.2 million a day.

Where are we going? Pluto! To 12,550 kilometers above the surface, plus or minus a few, at the closest approach time of 7:48:49, July 14th, on the US east coast, plus or minus around 54 seconds or so (1-sigma). Of course we couldn’t know that for sure until the radio signal hits the ground about four-and-a-half hours later … if there were a radio signal. There won’t be because New Horizons will be looking at satellite Charon at that red-hot moment, with the antenna pointed away from Earth.

Where were we? That’s in the past, we don’t particularly care. The most important thing is not where we’ve been but where we’re headed. And that’s the future, not the past. But if you have to know, we are from Earth, we are of the human race.

Politicians should also be Navigators. They should tell us where the human race is, and where it’s going. But they don’t. Are we headed into a long-term presence in space, leading to colonies in the solar system and beyond? Or are we slouching toward overpopulation disasters like pollution, climate change, and nuclear Armageddon? They can’t tell us that because nobody knows. We are a chaotic, unorganized civilization with no Navigators to point the way, and little guidance to correct our trajectory.

Meanwhile, back here on Earth, we have Crit 34 to worry about: Critical delivery number 34 of optical navigation data has just been delivered to us, hot from the spacecraft through the DSN (Deep Space Network), through a maze of data pipelines to our very own Optical Navigators in our big room at APL (the Applied Physics Laboratory) that we call The Bullpen. Our Optical Navigators have just finished calculating the centers of 2 Hydra, 3 Pluto, 3 Charon, and 2 Nix images taken yesterday, and now we, the rest of the Navigators on the team are going to combine that information with the rest of the Doppler and ranging data from the DSN and come up with an answer: When do we get to Pluto?

The solution will shift by X seconds, with an uncertainty of Y, and we’ll report that to the project at large. Then the decision will be made: Will we tweak the already loaded sequence to accommodate the new results? The betting is that we will, since recent solutions have moved us earlier than the nominal arrival, and the error bars are shrinking down around those answers. We’ll know by the end of today.



See Voyager at Neptune for the previous deepest space adventure of the far, far past.

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