Eric Schindhelm is a research scientist at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado. He supported the Pluto system encounter in summer 2015 as part of the Atmospheres team for New Horizons.
I was very fortunate to participate in the New Horizons Pluto encounter last summer, supporting the Atmospheres science theme team.
I arrived at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland—home of New Horizons mission operations—a few weeks before the historic July 14 Pluto flyby. My job was to prepare to analyze data from the Alice instrument, a sensitive ultraviolet imaging spectrometer designed to probe the composition and structure of Pluto’s atmosphere. While a spectrometer separates light into its constituent wavelengths (like a prism), an “imaging spectrometer” like Alice separates the different wavelengths of light and produces an image of the target at each wavelength – so we were really looking forward to some incredible and valuable data.
Over the following weeks, as we approached the Pluto system, the Ralph and Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) instruments returned increasingly amazing images and spectra. From the cracked and cratered surface of Pluto’s largest moon, Charon, to clear compositional differences across Pluto itself, these icy worlds at the edge ...