Wednesday, September 23, 2009

New Horizons is Halfway There

On September 8, NASA's New Horizons mission passed the halfway point on its way to the outer solar system. On July 14, 2015, if all goes well, the grand-piano sized robotic spacecraft will unveil the mysteries of Pluto and the Kuiper belt. The journey began January 19, 2006 from Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. New Horizons departed aboard a mighty Atlas V rocket, leaving earth orbit at over 58,500 kph--the fastest speed on record for an outward bound spacecraft. The probe flew past Jupiter on February 28, 2007, where it got a gravitational boost, adding about 14,000 kph to its velocity. The spacecraft will spend much of the remaining trip in hibernation but will be awakened periodically by engineers for checkup in order to make sure that and all systems are healthy and ready for the historic encounter. The last checkup was completed August 27 and the next will not begin until November 9. In the mean time the craft sleeps peacefully as it speeds between the orbits of Saturn and Uranus.

The spacecraft will fly by and study Pluto and its three known moons, Charon, Nix, and Hydra. And the journey does not end there. Depending on the success of the flyby and the health of the craft, NASA may approve flybys of one or more other Kuiper Belt Objects.

Here are some interesting facts about Pluto and the New Horizons mission.

Eight Facts about Pluto and Kuiper Belt

1. Pluto is named after the Greek god of the underworld. Its Roman counterpart is Hades.

2. Pluto orbits the sun once every 248 years.

3. A person on Pluto would weigh 1/15 what they weigh on Earth.

4. The symbol for Pluto has a double meaning. While it is an artistic combining of the first two letters of the name Pluto ("P" and "L"), it is also a tribute to Percival Lowell, who began the search for a ninth planet in the early 1900s.

5. Pluto was discovered in 1930 by American astronomer Clyde Tombaugh at the Lowel Obervatory.

6. In honor of the discovery, Walt Disney named Mickey Mouse's dog after Pluto.

7. Pluto was considered a planet until August 24, 2006, when the International Astronomical Union (IAU) voted on a definition for solar system planets. It was then determined that Pluto would be the first of a new category of solar system bodies called dwarf planet, though this redesignation—some say demotion--is disputed by various members of the astronomical community. The IAU definitions continue to be a topic of great debate.

8. The Kuiper (rhymes with “viper”) belt was first discovered in 1992. It is a region of the solar system beyond the planets extending from the orbit of Neptune ( 30 astronomical units) to approximately 55 astronomical units from the Sun. It is similar to the asteroid belt, although it is much larger—20 times as wide and 20–200 times as massive. Like the asteroid belt, it consists mainly of small bodies, or remnants from the solar system's formation. While the asteroid belt is composed primarily of rock and metal, the Kuiper belt objects are composed largely of frozen volatiles (termed "ices"), such as methane, ammonia and water. The region is known to include over a thousand Kuiper belt objects (KBOs), and it is home to at least three dwarf planets – Pluto, Haumea and Makemake.

Five Facts about New Horizons

1. New Horizons is the first mission in NASA's New Frontiers mission category, larger and more expensive than NASA's Discovery missions but smaller than the NASA'S Flagship Program. The cost of the mission (including spacecraft and instrument development, launch vehicle, mission operations, data analysis, and education/public outreach) is approximately $650 million over 15 years (from 2001 to 2016).

2. The New Horizons craft was built primarily by Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) and the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL). The mission's principal investigator is Dr. S. Alan Stern (NASA Associate Administrator, formerly of the Southwest Research Institute).

3. The New Horizons Mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt is managed by Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland.

4. The initials of the mission name New Horizons (N and H) are a tribute to Pluto’s two most recently discovered moons, Nix and Hydra.

5. Other items traveling with the spacecraft include, among other things, a collection of 434,738 names stored on a compact disc, a piece of Scaled Composites SpaceShipOne, and an American flag. One of the trim weights on the spacecraft is a Florida state quarter, and New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern has also confirmed that some of the ashes of Pluto discoverer Clyde Tombaugh are aboard the spacecraft.

For more on New Horizons, check out the mission home page:

For more on Pluto and the Kuiper belt, visit this page of the NASA/JPL’s Solar System Exploration site:

No comments: