30 December 2005

New Horizons Gears for Launch

Image Credit: Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute (JHUAPL/SwRI)

Artist's concept of the New Horizons spacecraft during a planned encounter with Pluto and its moon, Charon. The craft's miniature cameras, radio science experiment, ultraviolet and infrared spectrometers and space plasma experiments would characterize the global geology and geomorphology of Pluto and Charon, map their surface compositions and temperatures, and examine Pluto's atmosphere in detail. The spacecraft's most prominent design feature is a nearly 8-foot (2.1-meter) dish antenna, through which it would communicate with Earth from as far as 4.7 billion miles (7.5 billion kilometers) away.

"The First Mission to the Last Planet" draws closer to liftoff, with the launch window for NASA's New Horizons probe opening in just under three weeks. This mission is particularly exciting -- it aims to offer invaluable observations & data about the more distant reaches of our solar system on into the Kuiper Belt. Announcement of recent discoveries like the two new moons found orbiting Pluto greatly underscores our need to further study these distant bodies. (Speaking of which, Max Mutchler from STScI will be speaking on that very topic January 3rd, 2006.) There's still much to learn about Pluto, Charon and its smaller neighbors -- the study of which will also further aid our understanding of our own backyard, and more.

Among the probe's goals:

New Horizons: Mission Objectives

  • Map surface composition of Pluto and Charon
  • Characterize geology and morphology ("the look") of Pluto and Charon
  • Characterize the neutral atmosphere of Pluto and its escape rate
  • Search for an atmosphere around Charon
  • Map surface temperatures on Pluto and Charon
  • Search for rings and additional satellites around Pluto
  • PLUS... conduct similar investigations of one or more Kuiper Belt Objects

Almost ready! Image credit: NASA

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FLA. – The fairing enclosing New Horizons awaits further processing upon its arrival atop a Lockheed Martin Atlas V launch vehicle in the Vertical Integration Facility at Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. New Horizons carries seven scientific instruments that will characterize the global geology and geomorphology of Pluto and its moon Charon, map their surface compositions and temperatures, and examine Pluto's complex atmosphere. After that, flybys of Kuiper Belt objects from even farther in the solar system may be undertaken in an extended mission. New Horizons is the first mission in NASA's New Frontiers program of medium-class planetary missions. The spacecraft, designed for NASA by the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., will launch aboard a Lockheed Martin Atlas V rocket and fly by Pluto and Charon as early as summer 2015.

This recent press release offers an excellent overview:

NASA is preparing to launch the first spacecraft to distant Pluto and its moon Charon. The January 2006 launch of New Horizons will complete the initial reconnaissance of the planets in the solar system.

"New Horizons will study a unique world, and we can only imagine what we may learn. This is a prime example of scientific missions that complement the Vision for Space Exploration," said Mary Cleave, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate.

The Vision for Space Exploration is a bold new course into the cosmos, a journey that will return the space shuttle safely to flight, complete the construction of the International Space Station, take humans back to the moon and eventually to Mars and beyond.

The National Academy of Sciences has ranked the exploration of Pluto-Charon and the Kuiper Belt among the highest priorities for space exploration, citing the fundamental scientific importance of these bodies to advancing understanding of our solar system.

Different than the inner, rocky planets (like Earth) or the outer gas giants, Pluto is a different type of planet known as an "ice dwarf," commonly found in the Kuiper Belt region billions of miles from the sun.

"Exploring Pluto and the Kuiper Belt is like conducting an archeological dig into the history of the outer solar system, a place where we can peek into the ancient era of planetary formation," said Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator, Southwest Research Institute Department of Space Studies, Boulder, Colo.

Designed and built at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, Laurel, Md., pending launch approval, New Horizons is set to launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., no earlier than Jan. 17, 2006. The launch window extends until Feb. 14, 2006.

The compact, 1,050-pound piano-sized probe will launch aboard an Atlas V expendable launch vehicle, followed by a boost from a kick-stage solid propellant motor. New Horizons will be the fastest spacecraft ever launched, reaching lunar orbit distance in just nine hours and passing Jupiter 13 months later.

Launch before Feb. 3 allows New Horizons to fly past Jupiter in early 2007 and use the planet's gravity as a slingshot toward Pluto. The Jupiter flyby trims the trip to Pluto by five years and provides opportunities to test the spacecraft's instruments and flyby capabilities on the Jupiter system.

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.

Depending on its launch date, New Horizons could reach the Pluto system as early as mid-2015, conducting a five-month-long study possible only from the close-up vantage of a spacecraft. It will characterize the global geology and geomorphology of Pluto and Charon, map their surface compositions and temperatures, and examine Pluto's atmospheric composition and structure. New Horizons also will study the small moons recently discovered in the Pluto system.

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.

Ambitious to say the least, and the science return from this endeavor promises to be fantastic even though a noteworthy wait is involved. The mission logistics are highly complex, as illustrated by the timeline of events -- just navigating successfully and accurately over such phenomenal distances is no simple task. Principal Investigator Alan Stern and the New Horizons team definitely have a great deal of work ahead which will take years to culminate.

Best wishes to all involved for a great launch and smooth sailing.
Stay tuned!

For more goodies, drop by the coverage offered by The Planetary Society.



Blogger N C More said...

Very Nice! Some great information. I'll most certainly drop by to keep informed.

Hey, what's this about you being an "Evil Moderator" over on BAUT? No way, that's just not so!

7:33 PM CST  
Blogger Wolverine said...

Howdy stranger :-)

I'm not evil?! Dang, I must not be trying hard enough...

7:39 PM CST  
Blogger Wolverine said...

Addendum: there's a neat New Horizons update today in the Planetary Society Weblog.

12:36 PM CST  
Blogger scarlet_35 said...

awesome :)

9:51 PM CST  

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