Exploring new horizons in space

- Ottawa, Ontario

Setting course towards Pluto

Tuesday, July 14, 2015 marked humanity’s first close encounter with Pluto, taking planetary exploration to the very edge of our solar system. Following its nine-year trek, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft successfully completed its planetary flyby to collect data and photograph the dwarf planet up-close for the very first time.

Made possible by the innovations and contributions of hundreds of scientists and researchers from around the world, the unmanned New Horizons spacecraft—the fastest spacecraft ever launched—carried both promise and risk as it approached its target. Fraught by the presence of tens of thousands of icy space objects throughout its 5 billion km voyage, the risk of collision hazards was significant, most notably when passing into the Kuiper Belt region beyond Neptune.

To help reduce this risk, researchers from across the globe, including from the National Research Council (NRC), collaborated to collect the vital astronomical data needed to feed into the New Horizons navigation system as it made its way towards its target destination. In doing so, they played a critical role in charting its historic journey through space.

Travelling across the universe

During its approach towards Pluto, New Horizons was careful to avoid collision hazards, including any previously unseen rings, small moons, rocky dust or icy space debris. To avoid these hazards, space mission managers relied on a high-precision position reference system provided by the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope (CFHT) and its MegaPrime camera.

Using calibration methods pioneered at the Canadian Astronomy Data Centre (CADC) and a system developed by NRC’s Stephen Gwyn, the MegaPrime camera can be calibrated more accurately than any other wide-field imaging camera currently in operation and owes its accuracy to decade-long use by astronomers from Canada and its partners around the world.

“Canada’s long-term investment in space research through international facilities like the CFHT is paying off,” says Greg Fahlman, General Manager, NRC Herzberg Astronomy and Astrophysics. “Participation in world-class observatories like the CFHT ensures that Canadians have the opportunities to contribute significantly to the advancement of human knowledge about the universe.”

Reaching for the stars

Astronomical data captured by the MegaPrime camera and other major telescopes is archived in the CADC’s virtual observatory, which is operated by NRC from its facilities in Victoria, British Columbia. Membership in these international observatories also provides Canadian companies with the opportunity to contribute to their design and construction. "The collaborative efforts needed to make this mission a success have truly been astronomical in scope," adds Daniel Devost, Director of Science Operations at CFHT.

In fact, astronomers are already looking ahead. After Pluto, New Horizons will have fuel for one more flyby in the outer solar system. Given the mission’s reliance on astronomical data, NRC will continue to use the precision data from the CFHT to assist with the modelling and calibration required to find and characterize a second solar body suitable for the spacecraft’s next encounter expected in 2018-19.

“By the end of its journey, New Horizons will have revolutionized our understanding of the origins and evolution of the solar system,” says Marc Buie from the New Horizons' Hazard Avoidance Team. “The CADC/CFHT has played a crucial role in these discoveries.” A reminder that the ingenuity that made the mission possible can be traced back to the true stars down here on Earth.

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