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In just a few days, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft will conduct a flyby of Pluto, giving humankind its first-ever up-close look of the dwarf planet and its five moons. An undergraduate student will be on hand to witness this historic encounter.

Chad Melton

Chad Melton, a senior geology major from Knoxville, will be present at the New Horizons operations center—based in the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Columbia, Maryland—when the flyby begins at noon Monday. New Horizons will reach its closest point to Pluto at 7:50 a.m. EDT on Tuesday, July 14.

For about a year, Melton has been working with Joshua Emery, assistant professor of earth and planetary sciences, to analyze telescopic data from Kuiper Belt objects—icy bodies that orbit the sun beyond Neptune. Pluto is one of the largest Kuiper Belt objects.

“Being able to see the surface of Pluto for the first time will be exciting,” Melton said. “I’m also excited about meeting the scientists who put the mission together, and it’ll be great to talk to them.”

The New Horizons project launched in January 2006. The spacecraft has already returned fuzzy images that show unusual dark spots near Pluto’s equator. Monday’s flyby will reveal what those spots really are.

“The implications of it are pretty far-reaching,” Melton said.

Emery and postdoctoral student Noemi Pinilla-Alonso have worked with the New Horizons team in the past. Pinilla-Alonso currently is observing Pluto with telescopes in support of the New Horizons flyby. Both were invited to the operations center for the encounter but couldn’t go. The invitation was extended to Melton as well.

“Such opportunities are rare, and rarer still for undergraduates,” Emery said.

Melton said he plans to attend graduate school and continue studying planetary science, adding, “I would love to be involved in some of these missions that are happening someday.”


Lola Alapo (865-974-3993,