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USRA participates in NASA’s historic encounter with Pluto

After a decade-long journey through the solar system, NASA's New Horizons spacecraft is at Pluto . The spacecraft will continue to send its cache of data back to Earth over the next 16 months and experts will review and interpret the 10 years' worth of data.

Paul Schenk , a scientist at USRA's Lunar and Planetary Institute , is a New Horizons team expert in the area of stereo topographic mapping. Schenk will produce global maps of Pluto and one of its five moons, Charon, by interpreting the images returned from the spacecraft. This critical skill requires the use of multiple images from different angles to see and measure the relief (craters and canyons) of the planetary surface. The New Horizons spacecraft has already spotted multiple craters and canyons on Pluto's big moon Charon, including one chasm that appears to be longer and deeper than Arizona's Grand Canyon. Schenk's work will assist in understanding geophysical properties and geologic processes that have occurred and may be ongoing. He has been involved in planning the mission since launch and has been a team member since 2012.

Image of Pluto taken just before flyby
Image: Image of Pluto taken just before flyby. (Credit: NASA/JHU-APL/SwRI)

USRA also contributed to the New Horizons mission through observations of the Pluto occultation two-weeks ago by NASA's Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy —a Boeing 747SP jetliner modified to carry a 100-inch (2.5-meter) diameter telescope. While deployed to New Zealand, SOFIA observed Pluto as it passed directly between a distant star and the Earth which allowed measurement of Pluto's atmospheric density and structure. Members of the New Horizons team who are co-investigators on the SOFIA observing proposal will have immediate access to the occultation data since SOFIA's observations could possibly corroborate in-situ data from the spacecraft. Flying out of New Zealand enables SOFIA to study celestial objects that are more easily observed, or can only be observed, from southern latitudes.

About LPI

The Lunar and Planetary Institute, a division of the Universities Space Research Association, was established during the Apollo missions to foster international collaboration and to serve as a repository for information gathered during the early years of the space program.Today, the LPI is an intellectual leader in lunar and planetary science. The Institute serves as a scientific forum attracting world-class visiting scientists, postdoctoral fellows, students, and resident experts; supports and serves the research community through newsletters, meetings, and other activities; collects and disseminates planetary data while facilitating the community's access to NASA science; and engages, excites, and educates the public about space science and invests in the development of future generations of explorers.The research carried out at LPI supports NASA's efforts to explore the solar system.


SOFIA is a joint project of NASA and the German Aerospace Center (DLR). The aircraft is based at NASA's Armstrong Flight Research Center facility in Palmdale, California. NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California is home to the SOFIA Science Center that is managed by NASA in cooperation with the Universities Space Research Association headquartered in Columbia, Maryland, and the German SOFIA Institute at the University of Stuttgart.