Illustration Credit & Copyright: NASA/JHUAPL. CLICK illustration for larger view and look below for information and related links including where you can find New Horizons current location and will be able to locate mission images.
New Horizons Nears Its July 14, 2015 Close Flyby To Pluto:
Launched on January 19, 2006 on the nose of a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V-551 rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS), Space Launch Complex-41 (SLC-41), Florida; New Horizons spacecraft has on July 7, 2014 reached a distance of 29.8 Astronomical Units (AU) which crossed Pluto’s point of perihelion (Pluto’s closest point to the Sun) and is now in “Pluto Space.” An AU is the average distance from Earth to the Sun (149.6 million km or about 93 million mi) and is a common method for gaging distances around the solar system.
Just as a side note; Pluto which resides in the solar system’s “Third Zone” or Kuiper Belt, takes 248 Earth years to complete one orbit around the Sun. It last reached perihelion on September 5, 1989 (bummer for us observers) and its orbit is so elliptic that between February 7, 1989 and February 11, 1999 it was actually closer to the Sun than Neptune. Its aphelion or most distant point from the Sun will be around February 20, 2114 and it will be a whopping 49 AU’s from the Sun.
Pluto is a land unexplored; in fact we don’t even have detailed images of it. Attempts to resolve this tiny 2300 km or 1400 mi in diameter frozen binary planet have resulted in a sphere with different shades of color and no real detail to speak of. In short, it may be the largest “Third Zone” body (with its binary partner Charon being the 6th largest) but it’s just too small and too far away to resolve clearly from Earth orbiting satellites. We had to go to it!
Here’s my write up on the dark names of Pluto and its moons. I find it very fascinating and I hope you do too: https://danspace77.com/2013/07/13/as-plutos-newly-discovered-moons-receive-names-heres-a-history-lesson-on-their-dark-past/
New Horizons is FAST! It was launched directly into an Earth & Sun escape trajectory (hyperbolic) which means that it is leaving the solar system without the aid of planetary gravity assists. Upon launch it reached the highest ever velocity for any spacecraft directly leaving earth. It passed the orbit of the Moon in just nine hours before firing off toward Jupiter. Remember that it took the Apollo astronauts three days to reach the Moon riding the Saturn V.
It then made its closest approach to Jupiter on February 28, 2007 for a gravity assist which boosted its speed an extra 9000 mph (14,000 kph) bringing the total speed to 52,000 mph (83,685 kph) or fast enough to go from New York to Tokyo in eight minutes! Hopefully that date jumps out at you because yes, it only took New Horizons one year to reach Jupiter. It took Cassini just over three years and it will take Juno about five years to reach the gas giant. Remember though, these spacecraft are much larger and needed gravity assistance to reach beyond the asteroid belt. New Horizons, in an effort to get to Pluto as quickly as possible is a fairly small probe which leads to my next point.
This mission is a flyby only mission. Getting it there quickly, means that it’s too small of a craft to be armed with extra fuel and thrusters to gain orbit around Pluto. In fact, at the speed New Horizons is traveling, no spacecraft in history could slow the 35,000 mph speed to achieve orbit. This is a one shot deal, no major mistakes can be made as sending avoidance commands on the fly is really out of the question as messages would take about 4.5 to 5 hours to be received by the spacecraft. Yes, if you could travel at the speed of light (7 times around the Earth per second) it would still take you almost 10 hours to get to Pluto and back!
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.
The mission; “Approach 1” is scheduled to begin in early January 2015 and run through early April 2015. At that point “Approach 2” begins and will run through mid-June 2015. It will be during this phase when New Horizons will be imaging Pluto at a much better resolution than Hubble. Mid-June begins “Approach 3” and this takes us all the way through the close approach phase of 6000 mi (9656 km) on July 14, 2015 when image quality will be at 70m per pixel. After close approach we depart in the same timeframe in which we came in. So from close approach until mid-August will be known as “Departure 1.” Imagery will still be incredible through this timeframe. Mid-August through mid-October will be “Departure 2” and this will be imagery once again better than Hubble quality. Finally “Departure 3” takes us out of the year from mid-October through late December.
With all Pluto imagery concluded that data will be slowly and painstakingly sent back to Earth and data delivery should be complete in October 2016. Keep in mind, that’s Pluto system data. The spacecraft will still be hurtling out of the solar system on its way to new objects.
Don’t think that this mission is going to be a “see how things go” type of mission. Every minute and action is carefully planned out and on May 29 & 30, 2012 they made New Horizons think that it was 2015 already and had the spacecraft go through the exact motions that they intend on having it perform and it came through flawlessly. Even the timing of the arrival had to be precise as they plan on flying by Pluto during Full Moon. That is to say, when New Horizons makes its flyby Charon will be at opposition and thus at Full Moon phase in the skies of Pluto. They’re doing this in an attempt to image the night side of Pluto by utilizing as many reflected photons onto Pluto’s surface that they can. They will also be observing a sunrise and sunset on Pluto to gain detailed information on the thin and fading nitrogen atmosphere of Pluto.
Once the Pluto system flyby and its objectives are complete, New Horizons will likely turn its attention to other objects in the Kuiper Belt. The Hubble Space Telescope is hunting down objects of interest that would make suitable targets for New Horizons as we speak and as of August 1, 2014 all Hubble data should be returned to earth for ultimate analysis.
As New Horizons moves deeper into the Kuiper Belt, it’s appropriately named power source, Plutonium which drives the spacecraft’s Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (RTG) should sustain operations until about 2040. Traveling a massive 3 AU annually that should take us places deep into the solar systems third zone.
Where is New Horizons now?: http://pluto.jhuapl.edu/mission/whereis_nh.php
NASA & Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory; New Horizons: http://pluto.jhuapl.edu/
NASA & JHUAPL New Horizons Mission Guide: http://pluto.jhuapl.edu/common/content/pdfs/NH_MissionGuide.pdf
NASA Missions; New Horizons: http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/newhorizons/main/
NASA JPL New Horizons: http://science.jpl.nasa.gov/projects/NewHorizons/
NASA & JHUAPL New Horizons Image Gallery: http://pluto.jhuapl.edu/gallery/sciencePhotos/view.php?gallery_id=2&page=1&bytopic=&bydate=
NASA JPL Photojournal; New Horizons: http://photojournal.jpl.nasa.gov/mission/New%2BHorizons