New Horizons is the first scientific investigation to obtain a close look at Pluto and its moons. The mission will help us understand the icy worlds at the edge of our solar system, three billion miles from Earth, with the first detailed images ever obtained. Scientists hope to find answers to basic questions about the surface properties, geology, interior makeup and atmospheres on these bodies, the first ice dwarf planet and its moons to be visited by a spacecraft. The mission will then visit one or more Kuiper Belt Objects beyond Pluto.
Dr. Alan Stern, Principal Investigator
The New Horizons mission is managed for NASA by The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, MD. The Principal Investigator is Dr. Alan Stern of Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), Boulder, CO. APL designed, built and operates the spacecraft. SwRI is responsible for science payload operations and data reduction and archiving.
Characterize the geology and morphology 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
Conduct similar investigations of one or more Kuiper Belt Objects
NASA and the planetary science community identified what they believe are the most important things to learn during this first reconnaissance of Pluto: What is its atmosphere made of, and how does it behave? What does the surface of Pluto look like? Are there big geological structures? How does the solar wind interact with Pluto's atmosphere?
This is the most detailed view to date of the entire surface of Pluto, constructed from multiple Hubble Space Telescope photographs taken from 2002 to 2003.
Credit: NASA, ESA, and M. Buie (SwRI)
To answer these questions, the New Horizons science payload is the most capable suite of instruments ever launched on a first mission to an unexplored world. The seven instruments include an imaging spectrometer to probe atmospheric composition and planet structure; a visible and infrared camera to obtain high-resolution color maps and surface composition maps; a long-range telescopic camera for high-resolution surface images; particle spectrometers to measure charged particles in and around Pluto's atmosphere; a detector to measure masses of space-dust particles; and two copies of a radio science experiment to examine atmospheric structure, surface thermal properties and planet mass.
New Horizons launched on January 19, 2006, from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, aboard an Atlas V-551 rocket. The fastest spacecraft trip ever to the outer solar system, it reached the orbit of Earth's Moon in fewer than nine hours.
In February-March 2007 the probe performed a close flyby of Jupiter to get a gravitational boost enroute to Pluto, shortening its cruise time by about three years. The instruments were turned on and returned exciting Jupiter science to Earth, including images of a 200-mile-high plume from the active Tvashtar volcano on the moon Io.
As New Horizons continues on it long interplanetary cruise, the team on Earth conducts annual spacecraft and instrument checkouts, trajectory correction maneuvers, instrument calibrations, and Pluto encounter rehearsals, to make the most of their fast flyby.
The spacecraft will begin collecting data on the Pluto-Charon system about three months and 65 million miles before the closest approach on July 15, 2015. New Horizons will get as close as about 6,000 miles from Pluto and about 17,000 miles from Charon.
This is a montage of New Horizons images of Jupiter and Io. The prominent bluish-white oval is the Great Red Spot.
During the half-hour when the spacecraft is closest to Pluto, traveling at 31,000 miles per hour, it will take close-up pictures in both visible and near-infrared wavelengths. The best images should depict surface features as small as 200 feet across. From that vast distance, 31 AU or about 2.8 billion miles, a radio signal moving at the speed of light takes about four hours to reach Earth from Pluto. The Deep Space Network (DSN) provides the essential radio communications link for all of NASA’s interplanetary spacecraft.
An extended mission from 2016-2020 include could include encounters with one or more Kuiper Belt Objects, collecting data for the first time from icy mini-worlds in the region a billion miles beyond Neptune's orbit.
Our solar system has three classes of planets: the rocky worlds (Earth, Venus, Mercury and Mars); the gas giants (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune); and the ice dwarfs of the Kuiper Belt which have solid surfaces but a significant portion of their mass is icy material. There are far more ice dwarf planets than rocky and gas giant worlds combined - yet no spacecraft has visited one so far.
A special panel of the National Academy of Sciences was formed in 2001 to advise NASA on a planetary science strategy for the next 10 years. It ranked the exploration of Kuiper Belt Objects, including Pluto, as its highest scientific priority to complete our knowledge of planetary types. As the first mission to investigate this new class of planetary bodies, New Horizons seeks to fill this important gap and round out our knowledge of the planets in our solar system.
It is also an historic mission for the United States, which has been the first nation to reach every planet from Mercury to Neptune with a space probe. The New Horizons mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt is the first NASA launch to an ice dwarf planet. It will provide comparisons with dwarf planet Ceres which orbits in the main asteroid belt and will be visited by the Dawn spacecraft in 2015.
The 70-meter, or 230-foot, diameter antenna is the largest and most sensitive DSN antenna that NASA operates to send and receive data to spacecraft. It is capable of tracking a spacecraft travelling more than 10 billion miles from Earth.
Artist's impression of New Horizons encountering a Kuiper Belt object. Credit: JHUAPL/SwRI
This picture shows some of the SDC team next to the finished instrument and some of the testing equipment.
Students Send an Instrument to Space
Among the seven scientific instruments onboard New Horizons, the Student Dust Counter (SDC) is an Education and Public Outreach project built primarily by students at the University of Colorado in Boulder, with supervision from professional space scientists. The initial team of 20 engineering and physics students were responsible for the work, including giving presentations at NASA milestone reviews. The SDC was built and tested to the same NASA engineering standards as every other flight instrument. NASA-certified personnel completed all quality-assurance inspections, as well as the final flight assembly.
Why the interest in dust? Dust grains can be generated by several processes, including collisions, volcanoes, and hydrothermal vents. Studying these grains can provide clues about how the solar system was formed billions of years ago and how it works today.
After six months of successful operations in space, the SDC instrument was named “The Venetia Burney Student Dust Counter” in honor of Venetia Burney Phair, who at age eleven nominated the name Pluto for our solar system's newly discovered ninth planet in 1930. Mrs. Phair, a retired economics and math teacher, said, "I feel quite astonished, and to have an instrument named after me is an honor. I never dreamt when I was eleven, that after all these years, people would still be thinking about this and even sending a probe to Pluto. It's remarkable."
Mrs. Phair passed away in 2009 at age 90, but the mission team hopes the project named in her honor will inspire a new generation of students to explore our solar system, to make discoveries which challenge the imagination, and to pursue learning all through their lives.
Venetia Burney at age 11, when she suggested the name "Pluto" for the newly discovered ninth planet in 1930.
SDC Principal Investigator Mihály Horányi and New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern visited Venetia Burney at her home in England shortly after launch in 2006.