NASA's Mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt
Johns Hopkins APL Physicist Focuses on Mission's Heliospheric Research
Pictured in the New Horizons mission operations center at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, Pontus Brandt brings a new kind of expertise to the New Horizons science leadership team — heliophysics, where the team expects to make breakthroughs that no other mission can, with new capabilities never before available so far from the Sun.
Credit: Johns Hopkins APL/Craig Weiman
Pontus Brandt has followed the historic accomplishments of NASA's New Horizons over the past 16 years, during its flybys of Jupiter, Pluto and the Kuiper Belt object Arrokoth. But as the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory space physicist joins the project's science team, it's the potential for New Horizons to make discoveries across several disciplines that truly excites him.
"I'm humbled to join a mission that is following on a path traced out by the historic NASA Voyager and Pioneer missions and has become one of humanity's farthest operating outposts in space,” said Brandt, who serves as an assistant project scientist. "New Horizons is already traveling toward the outer boundary of the Sun's vast magnetic bubble that encases the entire solar system – the heliosphere – as well as through the solar system's enormous dust disk, and what we discover will shed more light on our place in the galaxy.”
Brandt earned a Ph.D. is space plasma physics at the Swedish Institute of Space Physics in 1999. He joined the Applied Physics Laboratory a year later and has held leadership positions on various APL mission and spacecraft instrument teams, most recently serving as principal investigator of the Particle Environment Package-Hi instruments, named JENI (for Jupiter Energetic Neutrals and Ions) and JoEE (Jovian Energetic Electrons), for the European Space Agency's JUpiter Icy moons Explorer (JUICE) mission. He is also project scientist for the recently completed APL-led Interstellar Probe study, a mission concept to explore the outer solar system, the heliospheric boundary and beyond as NASA's first dedicated step into the space between the stars known as the interstellar medium.
That experience is well suited for New Horizons' current mission, traversing space more than 50 times farther from the Sun than Earth.
"Pontus brings a new kind of scientific expertise into the New Horizons science leadership team — heliophysics, where we expect to make breakthroughs that no other mission can, with new capabilities never before available so far from the Sun. We are excited for him to have joined and to be pitching in!” said mission Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado.
New Horizons continues to observe Kuiper Belt objects from millions of miles away, but closer to the spacecraft, the suite of plasma and dust instruments on the intrepid spacecraft are sampling the expanding solar wind, dust and charged particles. As the lone operating spacecraft in the Kuiper Belt, New Horizons is poised to make discoveries where the Sun's influence begins to wane at the solar system's edge. The team also continues its groundbased searches for an even more distant flyby target.
"New Horizons remains a pathfinder on a historic journey, and since we're equipped with instrumentation not flown on Voyager, we will be able to answer some of the big questions about what upholds our vast heliosphere as it plows through the interstellar medium,” Brandt said. "Leaving the foreground ‘haze' of the solar system's dust and gas, New Horizons is also in a position to make some game-changing discoveries that not only give us glimpses into our changing local interstellar medium, but also discoveries on cosmological scales.”
Brandt joins a science leadership team that includes deputy project scientists Kelsi Singer and John Spencer, both of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado; assistant project scientists Joel Parker of SwRI and Anne Verbiscer of the University of Virginia; and APL's Hal Weaver, who has been serving as the mission's lead project scientist since 2003.
Follow New Horizons on its historic voyage of discovery at https://pluto.jhuapl.edu