New Horizons is only one of more than a dozen instruments trained

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Required fields are indicated by an asterisk (*) Sign up for our daily newsletter Get more great content like this delivered right to you! Country Emailcenter_img New Horizons is not the only set of eyes fixated on Pluto during its moment in the limelight. About 15 other astronomical facilities, in space and on the ground, will be staring at the dwarf planet when NASA’s space probe makes its closest approach on 14 July.The reasons are clear, says Richard Binzel, a planetary scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge and the New Horizons team member leading the effort to coordinate the ancillary observations. Since its discovery in 1930, Pluto has been an astronomical object—a distant dot seen through a telescope. Now, it has become a geological object—with craters and cliffs emerging by the day. But the details will be fleeting. “After New Horizons, it will become an astronomical world once again,” Binzel says. “This is our moment to link everything we’ve learned.”One goal is to understand how Pluto changes with time, beyond the current New Horizons encounter. The dwarf planet has strong seasons because of the extreme tilt of its rotational pole and the elongation of its 248-year orbit. By linking past—and future—observations to the current state of Pluto’s climate, astronomers can try to understand how its atmosphere evolves and shapes the surface. When future astronomical observations look like the current ones, scientists can have confidence that the climate or surface looks like what New Horizons is seeing. “The next time you see that interesting [astronomical] result, you can say, ‘Oh, this happened again,’” says Susan Benecchi, a planetary astronomer for the Planetary Science Institute, based in Herndon, Virginia. Benecchi is leading an effort for the Kepler space telescope to record Pluto’s brightness every 30 minutes over the course of 75 days beginning in October. The Hubble Space Telescope will also play a big role. In 2002 and 2003, astronomers using Hubble created what had been (until now) the best image of Pluto: a peachy orb with a splotchy surface. The instrument on Hubble that made that image is now defunct, so the telescope can no longer see surface details. But other Hubble instruments can still make some of the best observations of how much light Pluto and its moons are reflecting. From March until October, astronomers have been granted 40 chunks of Hubble time, about 45 minutes apiece, to use in observing Pluto. “That’s a pretty big allocation for Hubble,” says Marc Buie, a planetary astronomer at Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, and a member of the New Horizons team leading the Hubble effort.Even farther flung assets will attempt to pitch in. Cassini, stationed in the Saturn system, will train its camera on Pluto, as will Rosetta, the European spacecraft currently orbiting a comet. Although their cameras are small, they will view Pluto from different angles. New Horizons is also viewing Pluto at a slight angle—as if Pluto is a gibbous object a few days shy of full. Combining all the different observations gives astronomers information about how Pluto brightens as it moves from a crescent to a fully lit disc—and those transitions, in turn, offer information about the roughness of the surface. (Equivalent data for the moon have helped scientists understand the properties of its regolith, or soil.)Other telescopes will look at the light Pluto emits in other parts of the spectrum. The Spitzer Space Telescope, for instance, specializes in infrared measurements beyond the capability of New Horizons, and its observation campaign offers a chance to help New Horizons identify chemical compounds in the ices on Pluto’s surface. The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array, a facility in Chile, will look for Pluto’s faint, cold thermal radiation—which should enable astronomers to construct a better temperature profile for the dwarf planet moving forward.An especially serendipitous observation occurred near New Zealand on 30 June, when Pluto’s tiny shadow passed over the Pacific Ocean. A telescope in the back of a 747 jet, the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), picked up the faint light in the shadow as light from a distant star passed around the edge of Pluto, through its wispy atmosphere, and continued to Earth. The data should help astronomers tie past, present, and future observations to New Horizons’ investigations of Pluto’s atmosphere. Buie says scientists are lucky to have had such a good occultation, as the eclipses are called, happening so close to New Horizons’ encounter. “You have no idea how important that measurement is,” he says. “That is just so killer amazing.”Binzel says more astronomers—including some amateurs—keep signing up to take a crack at observing Pluto. Some of the observations may end up being less important than others, but you never know, Buie says. “It may look like overkill,” he says. “But you can’t go back and do this again.”*See Science’s full coverage of Pluto, including regular updates on the New Horizons flyby.last_img