New Horizons and Pluto: Two apps to learn more about the mission.

Two Ways to Vicariously Experience a Visit to Pluto

Two Ways to Vicariously Experience a Visit to Pluto

Bad Astronomy
The entire universe in blog form
June 8 2015 7:15 AM

Pluto Time and Pluto Safari

Pluto
Screen grab from Pluto Safari, showing Pluto and its moon.

Photo bySimulation Curriculum

In a month, the New Horizons will scream through the Pluto system, providing the first close-up photos (as well as a dizzying array of other data) of the little world and its littler moons.

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

There are a couple of new ways you can join in on this journey, albeit vicariously.

Advertisement

One comes from the New Horizons team, an idea called “Pluto Time”. Pluto is nearly five billion kilometers from the Sun, and our star is considerably dimmer at that distance, on average about 250 times as bright as the full Moon. High noon on Pluto is like dusk or dawn here on Earth, when the Sun is just on the horizon. That’s when it’s Pluto time!

NASA has a tool to find your local Pluto time: Just go there, enter your location, and it will tell you when the illumination you experience is about the same as that on Pluto. It’s not exact; clouds, mountains on the horizon (a factor here in Colorado east of the Rockies), and other factors complicate this, but that’s not the point. The idea is to get a feel for how much darker it is on Pluto than on Earth. For my location, Pluto time is about 8:30 p.m. local time. What is it for you?

NASA and the New Horizons team encourage you to try this, then take a photo at your location and share it on social media.  This is a clever idea, and way to get people experience what it’s like somewhere far, far outside their usual experience. In this case, literally.

If you want to learn more about Pluto and New Horizons, the folks at Simulation Curriculum (who make the wonderful Starry Night and SkySafari software; the latter is my go-to app for looking up sky maps) have put out a free interactive app called Pluto Safari*. It’s pretty interesting, loaded with info about the mission including a timeline, where New Horizons is now, different views of the trip and Pluto system (from the viewpoint of the probe, from Pluto, from Earth; all interactive and fun), and a link to current news.

Advertisement

I played with this for a while, and it’s cool. To be honest the most amazing thing to me is the countdown distance indicator; watching it tick down at a staggering 14 km per second gives you a real sense of just how flippin’ fast that spacecraft is hauling. Of course, there’s a countdown clock as well, and you can watch and let the excitement build as we get closer to his enigmatic world.

Pluto Safari is available for iOS and Android (and a reminder, it’s free).

Pluto
Raw image of Pluto and its moon Charon, and a zoomed view (right) of Pluto, taken by New Horizons on June 6, 2015.

Photo by NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

As I write this, New Horizons is still about 45 million km from Pluto, but even from that distance we’re starting to see surface features, even in the raw data. The next few weeks are going to be very exciting.

* Full disclosure: I was contacted by Simulation Curriculum about the app, and after I checked it out and told them I would write about it they offered me an upgrade to Sky Safari and Starry Night. I would’ve written this post either way, and still said that I like their software!