New Horizons Pluto-Kuiper Belt mission
Having launched before the critical date of February 3 allowed New Horizons to take advantage of a gravity-assist (a slingshot effect) from Jupiter, in early 2007, to boost its speed to about 51,000 mph (23 km/s) – a spacecraft record. The Jupiter flyby trims the trip to Pluto by five years, enabling arrival at Pluto-Charon in July 2015. It also provides an opportunity to test the spacecraft's instruments and flyby capabilities on the Jupiter system.
New Horizons will conduct a five-month-long study of the Pluto system, as it approaches, fly past (closest approach on July 14, 2015), and recedes from its target. It will study the global geology and geomorphology of Pluto and Charon, map their surface compositions and temperatures, and examine Pluto's atmospheric composition and structure.
The spacecraft also will study the two small moons recently discovered in orbit around Pluto (for details see Pluto, moons). Then New Horizons will head deeper into the Kuiper Belt to investigate one or more of the icy mini-worlds in this vast region, at least a billion miles beyond Neptune's orbit.
The spacecraftThe 1,050-pound, piano-sized probe was launched on January 19, 2006, by an Atlas V rocket, then given a final boost by a kick-stage solid propellant motor. It achieved the highest Earth escape velocity of any spacecraft 57,600 km/h (35,800 mph), reaching lunar orbit distance just nine hours after third stage separation and on track to surpass the distance of Jupiter 13 months later. (See fastest spacecraft).
The New Horizons science payload, developed under direction of Southwest Research Institute, includes imaging infrared and ultraviolet spectrometers, a multi-color camera, a long-range telescopic camera, two particle spectrometers, a space-dust detector and a radio science experiment. The dust counter was designed and built by students at the University of Colorado, Boulder.
The spacecraft will "sleep" in electronic hibernation for much of the cruise to Pluto. Operators will turn off all but the most critical electronic systems and monitor the spacecraft once a year to check out critical systems, calibrate instruments and perform course corrections, if necessary.
The spacecraft will send back a beacon signal each week to give operators an instant read on spacecraft health. The entire spacecraft, drawing electricity from a single radioisotope thermoelectric generator, operates on less power than a pair of 100-watt household light bulbs.
UpdatesFeb. 28, 2007: Closest approach to Jupiter.
Jan. 20, 2006: Mission principal investigator announced that some of the ashes of Clyde Tombaugh, discoverer of Pluto, are being carried aboard the spacecraft.
Jan. 19, 2006: New Horizons was successfully launched at 1900 GMT.
External sitesNew Horizons homepage at Johns Hopkins
New Horizons homepage at NASA
Related category SATELLITES AND SPACE PROBES
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