New Horizons, a NASA New Frontiers Mission

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  • Topic: New Horizons, Pluto, Dwarf planet
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  • Published : April 9, 2013
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New Horizons


Missions beyond Mars
Design challenges for long missions
Electrical power

Jupiter gravity assist
Zipping by Jupiter
Plans for Pluto
Beyond Pluto
Exploring the Kuiper Belt
Current Status

New Horizons is a NASA New Frontiers mission managed by the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. Launched on January 19, 2006, the New Horizons spacecraft is due to pass Jupiter on February 28, 2007, en route to photographing and examining Pluto and other objects in the Kuiper Belt. Currently traveling at over 51,000 miles per hour, New Horizons was the fastest spacecraft ever launched. Yet, it will require eight more years to reach planet Pluto, which will be more than 3 billion miles away from the Sun when New Horizons arrives. After its Pluto-system encounter, New Horizons will continue on to explore the Kuiper Belt, then escape the solar system and fly into interstellar space. The first spacecraft to explore Pluto and its system of moons, New Horizons may also be the last for a while. As Pluto moves away from the Sun, its atmosphere will freeze and condense on its surface, making photography and other measurements difficult. Pluto will not be as close to the Sun as it is now for nearly another 250 years. New Horizons is carrying a compact disc with the names of more than 430,000 people from around the world who are interested in the project, the first-ever planetary flight experiment developed by undergraduate students, and the ashes of Clyde Tombaugh, who discovered Pluto in 1930. In November 2001, the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory took on this task, to build a planetary observatory named New Horizons, bound for Pluto. APL has delivered the spacecraft to Cape Canaveral, Florida, for launch in January 2006. If the mission fully succeeds, in July 2015 New Horizons will fly past Pluto for the first reconnaissance of that strange little ball of ice and rock, snapping pictures, mapping its terrain, analyzing its atmosphere, and sampling space dust and the solar wind. For nine months after it will transmit data back to Earth as it races toward an even more distant region of the solar system known as the Kuiper Belt, where scientists hope to extend its mission. Missions beyond Mars

Exploration of the outer planets requires extreme patience. Our launch vehicles are no powerful enough to send massive spacecraft directly to the giant planets, so they must take circuitous paths returning to Earth or even traveling inward to Venus for gravity assists to boost momentum enough to send them beyond the asteroid belt. Rendezvousing with asteroids and comets can be even more challenging; they lack sufficient mass to brake fast-moving spacecraft into orbit, so the ships must perform years of orbit adjustment to match position and velocity with the tiniest worlds. Power is also a problem.  Located very far from the Sun, comets, outer planets, and most asteroids receive very little solar energy. Solar arrays must be very large to gather the little sunlight, like those of Rosetta, Dawn, and Juno; or else spacecraft must carry radioisotope thermoelectric generators. The successes of missions like Voyager, Pioneer, Galileo, Cassini-Huygens, and New Horizons require these nuclear power supplies, but Earth has run short of refined plutonium-238, preventing us from planning future missions. New Horizons is the result of a long battle to take advantage of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a Jupiter gravity assist trajectory to Pluto. It observed Jupiter over five months around the flyby in early 2007, with its closest approach on February 27. It was the first spacecraft to observe the newly formed Little Red Spot, and also caught Io's north polar volcano Tvashtar in the middle of a spectacular eruption.  It will travel within 10,000 kilometers of Pluto before traveling onward to a second (and probably much more distant) encouter with a much...
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