On January 19, 2006, the New Horizons spacecraft launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida. The spacecraft, managed by NASA, the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, and the Southwest Research Institute, will reach Pluto, its intended destination on July 14, 2015. This will be the first space mission for the recently reclassified dwarf planet. The mission is part of NASA’s New Frontiers program that seeks to explore Pluto, Jupiter, and Venus. A second spacecraft, Juno, launched in 2011 and will reach Jupiter in July 2016. After exploring Pluto, the spacecraft will then be re-tasked to explore other objects in the Kuiper Belt—the group of small rock and metal bodies that are remnants of the creation of the Solar System. Over the past several weeks, New Horizons has been sending back the most detailed images of Pluto that we have ever seen.
|The New Horizons Spacecraft|
In February 2007, the spacecraft passed within 1.4 million miles of Jupiter and performed a test run of New Horizons’ equipment. It spent four months photographing Jupiter and its moons. The spacecraft studied Jupiter’s atmosphere and captured some amazing images of the planet’s famed Red Spot. New Horizons then went into hibernation mode in order to preserve its equipment for the long trip to Pluto. Mission engineers have periodically awoken the spacecraft in order to make sure it is running properly. On December 6, 2014, the New Horizons team began waking up the spacecraft to prepare it for its approach to Pluto. Since January 2015, the spacecraft has been sending back images of the dwarf planet. It transmits the images via a radio transmitter and 83 inch antenna. Full communication between NASA and New Horizons takes over nine hours. Commands are first tested on simulator, then the New Horizons Mission Operations Center at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, Maryland sends them to NASA’s Deep Space Network, headquartered at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory then sends instructions from one of three locations around the world in Bartsow, California, Madrid, Spain, or Canberra, Australia.
|Jupiter and its moon Io (as photographed by New Horizons)|
New Horizons has a lofty set of goals including:
· Mapping the surfaces of Pluto and its largest moon, Charon
· Discovering the characteristics of Pluto’s atmosphere and whether Charon has one at all
· Investigating surface temperatures on Pluto and Charon
· Looking for planetary rings around Pluto
· Exploring other Kuiper Belt objects
The spacecraft carries two computer systems one for command and handling of the spacecraft and the other handles guidance. Photos from the spacecraft come from the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI). Starting in May 2015, LORRI has been able to provide better images of Pluto than anything from the Hubble telescope. A single radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG) supplied by 24 pounds of plutonium dioxide powers the entire spacecraft.
|Pluto and Charon (June 29, 2015)|
In the past weeks, New Horizons has sent back some new and revealing images of Pluto. On July 4, the mission hit a snag. The spacecraft experienced an anomaly and switched itself into safe mode. The project’s engineers have managed to correct the problem within the command sequence of the spacecraft. With New Horizons again operating normally, it should resume sending the best images of Pluto that mankind has ever seen.