When a new spacecraft lifts off on its maiden voyage on NASA’s New Horizons mission, no one will be more excited than the developer who helped craft the pioneering spacecraft’s last-ditch communication with the ground.
Sean Solomon is chief scientist at the California Institute of Technology, which will serve as the prime contractor and principal investigator for New Horizons, tasked with surveying Pluto and its moons, and in October, the spacecraft will attempt to enter the unexplored Kuiper Belt — the region between the solar system’s edge and the sun’s orbit — to search for alien life.
For Solomon, the main excitement on New Horizons is reviving the lunar mission the last time NASA tried to land on the moon. In 1999, Apollo 17 crew members took a 360-degree selfie using the Mars Polar Lander, a NASA mission that sent a heat shield to a dust-covered spot on the moon in order to search for possible evidence of past life.
“We were able to immerse ourselves for three hours and use those filters,” Solomon told The Atlantic. “That was the biggest deal. I had this feeling of, this could be it, because it had been over four decades.”
Unfortunately, the mission turned out to be a failure and the camera snaps went unnoticed, a scenario similar to those that doomed New Horizons. “We had to go and break the capsule open and get rid of all the detritus,” Solomon said.
But even without an Apollo-like near-nail-biting mission, New Horizons should not be confused with other spacecraft that have flown by the moon in recent years, Solomon said. The craft will take 30 flybys of the moon to gather data — unlike NASA’s previous attempt, which was to land a spacecraft on the lunar surface.
“What that means is, New Horizons is the first going to fly by the moon in this way, and it’s going to collect new knowledge about the moon that we’ve never really had access to,” Solomon said. “There is a reason why the past missions had to launch to get to the moon. New Horizons is flying as close as it can and going to the moon,” making observations for the first time.
For the first time, scientists will be able to view the actual surface of the moon, as well as a computer-generated 3-D model of the moon’s composition. “This is our first chance to understand the real moon as accurately as we know it,” Solomon said.
Read the full story at The Atlantic.
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