After a nine year journey, NASA's New Horizons spacecraft will arrive at Pluto on July 14. The Pluto Safari iOS app from Simulation Curriculum has all the details: news, the spacecraft's timeline, current location, various views from different locations and a countdown timer. Here's a quick look at this terrific free app.
This iOS app (and Android version in the Google Play store) is designed around four basic modules—plus a poll that allows the user to vote on Pluto's dwarf planet status. The modules are, according to the developer:
- Location: Provides interactive views on the latest position of New Horizons and Pluto. Get a bird’seye view of our Solar System as New Horizons approaches Pluto. Rotate around a detailed 3D model of the New Horizons spacecraft, explore the Pluto system and its moons. Find Pluto in the sky from your home location, or even fly through some of the objects in the Kuiper Belt.
- Timeline: New Horizons launched from Cape Canaveral on January 19, 2006 on an Atlas V launch vehicle. Explore detailed New Horizons mission milestones in the interactive solar system simulator.
- Guide: A multimedia guide to Pluto, its discovery, the first mission to explore it, and the controversy generated by its demotion to dwarf planet status.
- News: Updated information on the latest mission news, data, and discoveries. iOS notifications can keep you up to date.
This app is based on the same technology and built by the same developers of the well-known Sky Safari iOS app, previously reviewed.
Background on the New Horizons Spacecraft
Very briefly, after years of trying to get a Pluto mission approved and funded, the New Horizons spacecraft was launched on January 19, 2006 on an Atlas V/Centaur rocket. It left the Earth so fast, it reached the distance of the moon's orbit in only 9 hours and has been heading to Pluto for the last nine years and 5 months at about 14 km/sec, traveling a total of more than 4.7 billion kilometers.
The arrival at Pluto is estimated to be July 14 at 11:50 pm UT. Because the distance is so great and the trasmission rate slow, the spacecraft will send back images and science data in phases, with incrementally increasing detail. An excellent description of the spacecraft, the event, and the science involved can be found in the July, 2015 issue of Sky and Telescope, page 20.
Sample timeline entry from 1 Feb 2015.
The Best Part of This App
Besides being free, the best part of this app is the credentials of the development team, which ensures the accuracy of the spacecraft timeline and travel. And thanks to the development experience from the sky chart program, Sky Safari, the various views of the spacecraft in the solar system are spectacular and technically accurate. Finally, this development team is well connected in science circles and gets all the science, astronomy and news right.
One of the many views showing New Horizons & Pluto against backdrop of solar system.
Using the App
This app couldn't be easier or more fun to use. Just launch it and select from one of the modules. Notable is the Location module that provides several, notable viewpoints.
- Bird's-eye view of the solar system.
- A closer look of the solar system with a view of New Horizon's approaching Pluto.
- The (simulated) view of what the spacecraft is seeing as it approaches Pluto.
- A closer look at the Pluto system and its newly discovered moons including Kerberos, Hydra, Nix and Styx.
I asked Pedro Braganca at Simulation Curriculum about the image of Pluto being used in the app. He told me:
The current surface texture maps for Pluto and Charon were created by Marc Buie of Southwest Research Institute in Bloulder, CO, the folks behind New Horizons. They are both scientifically accurate (Hubble Telescope data) and aesthetically pleasing. We'll replace these textures with the actual Pluto map whenever that gets released post-flyby.
Perspective from spacecraft approacing Pluto & moons.
Navigation in the app is simple with an easy return to home and many options for more exploration. I only have one quibble. I wish the Location selections were a grid of graphic thumbnails to distinguish them from similar entries on the news section. But that's a nit.
I liked this app a lot for its pleasing design, sound science, easy navigation, and many exploration options. And since it's free, you'll be all prepped and briefed as the news picks up on this once-in-a-lifetime encounter of New Horizons with Pluto. I give it my strongest recommendation.