Data Map By: New Horizons Mission Tracking Page (Links below).

Keeping to the Pluto theme, let’s take a look at the New Horizons Mission to Pluto which is scheduled to arrive in the summer of 2015.

Launched from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 1900 UTC (1400 EST) on January 19, 2006 by an Atlas 5-551, the spacecraft received a gravity assist by Jupiter on February 28, 2007 (Yes only a year to Jupiter which normally takes about 4) which shaved three years off travel time. Since then and until it reaches Pluto on July 14, 2015 it will be in Interplanetary Cruise Mode. After which, it will transition into a Kuiper Belt mission from at least 2016 to 2020. New Horizons is the first mission to Pluto and the first in NASA’s New Frontiers Program of medium-class spacecraft exploration projects.

The primary goal of the mission itself is to help us understand the origins of the solar system by analyzing the icy bodies that reside in the outer solar system. Pluto, its moons and the Kuiper Belt objects will help us do just that. These trans-Neptunian (Beyond Neptune) objects are believed to be representatives of the very material that condensed to form the planets. It’s believed that these objects were in the process of accretion which is the process used by the solar system to form planets though for some reason that process stopped at the outer reaches of the solar system.

The National Academy of Sciences placed the exploration of trans-Neptunian objects (Pluto and Charon specifically) among its highest priority planetary mission rankings for this decade. Well on its way, New Horizons has been snapping photos along the way (See links below for galleries) just recently capturing a grainy photo of Pluto and its moon Charon. At this time there are no quality photos of Pluto that show any detail what so ever. Amateur astronomers with a modest 8-10 inch telescope can capture more surface detail on Mars than Hubble can of little Pluto which is why this mission promises to deliver in the science and discovery department.

Recently the NH team concluded an 18 month study of potential impact hazards that the spacecraft would be facing as it nears and passes Pluto and determined that they will remain on track for its current mission. A secondary and tertiary SHBOT (Safe Haven By Other Trajectories) are on standby in the event anything major changes.

*New Horizons is the first mission ever to explore Pluto and its moons.

*The spacecraft, after travelling 3 billion miles (5 billion km), to complete its objective it will have to thread a needle only 186 miles (300 km) in diameter.

*One of its instruments, the Venetia, a dust and particle counter is the first science instrument to be flown on a spacecraft that was designed and built by students and it was named after the school girl that named Pluto.

*To get to Pluto so fast, sacrifices had to be made, such as; the spacecraft had to be very small and lightweight thus this is a fly-by only mission. No fuel and thrusters could be used nor are equipped to insert NH into orbit around Pluto.

*The fly by itself will be a maximum of about 150 days from start to finish and will be traveling at 31,300 mph or about 14 kilometers per second.

*At its closest NH will be at a distance of 6000 miles (9650 km) from the center of Pluto’s mass and for perspective, 33 AU from Earth (34 AU from the Sun).

*Its dish and antenna allows for communications of up to 4.7 billion miles (7.5 billion km). Communication will take some time though as at the time of fly-by Pluto and NH will be about 4.5 light hours from Earth. That means a signal sent to the spacecraft will take at least 4.5 hr. to reach it and we will have to wait a round trip time of about 9 hr. to find out if the signal was successful. Think about that the next time you have no service on your cell phone.

*New Horizons is the first spacecraft to be launched directly into a solar escape trajectory. The gravity assist it borrowed from Jupiter pushed the craft to more than 50,000 mph. though the Sun has slowed it sense then. That assist helped to shave 3 days off it’s travel time.

*It took the Apollo Missions nearly 4 days to reach the Moon; New Horizons passed the Moon in only 9 hours.

*All space missions carry “special” items and New Horizons is no different. Onboard are an American Flag, a Florida State Quarter, more than 400,000 names and some ashes of Clyde Tombaugh himself.

Where is New Horizons? – Have a look:

New Horizons Mission homepage:

NASA Science New Horizons page:

NASA New Horizons Mission photo gallery page:

New Horizons on Twitter:

NASA Solar System New Horizons page:

NASA New Frontiers Program:

National Academy of Sciences:

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