NASA launched the New Horizons space probe on January 19, 2006 on a nine and a half year flight to Pluto. Now, after travelling 3 billion miles through space, we will finally get our first close look at mysterious Pluto and it’s known moons Charon, Styx, Nix, Kerberos and Hydra when New Horizons flies by on July 14th, 2015.
What is Pluto
When first discovered in 1930 Pluto was declared the 9th and most distant planet of our solar system. However, since the discovery of the Kuiper belt (an asteroid field of frozen rocky objects out beyond the orbit of Pluto) Pluto has since been downgraded to “dwarf planet” innermost and largest of the Kuiper Belt objects.
Pluto’s many moons may prove as interesting as Pluto itself since they represent a sampling of Kuiper Belt objects swept up and captured by Pluto’s gravitational field over the eons.
Pluto’s highly elliptical orbit around the sun takes 248 years to complete and its distance from the sun varies from 4.6 billion to 2.8 billion miles due to its eccentricity.
Imagine building a 1,000 pound space robot and throwing it at a tiny moving target 3 billion miles away for an observational flyby 6,000 miles above the surface. That’s inside the orbits of Pluto’s moons! Talk about threading the needle. Amazing!
To get the party started NASA used the biggest rocket in it’s arsenal; a three stage heavy lift Saturn 5, plus an unprecedented 5 additional solid rocket boosters. The massive power of the launch vehicle has earned New Horizons the record for the fastest launch ever. It passed the moon only 9 hours after lift-off and it passed the orbit of Mars (doing 50,000 miles per hour) a mere two and a half months later.
Then, on February 28, 2007, barely one year into the mission, it passed by Jupiter where it received a “sling-shot” gravitational assist increasing it’s speed still further and shortening the flight time to Pluto by three years.
Today New Horizons is so far away that it takes four and a half hours for a radio signal traveling at the speed of light to reach the space craft from Earth. Imagine that, four and a half light hours away from home. That’s really “out there!”
New Horizons weighs in at 1,000 pounds and is about the size of a piano. On board instruments include a variety of cameras, spectrometers, electro-magnetic field detectors, and dust collectors.
Power for the space probe is provided, ironically enough, by 24 pounds of Plutonium 238, the radioactive decay of which is so intense that it puts off tremendous heat which is harnessed to make electricity to power the probe and also keep it’s vital components nice and toasty in the near absolute cold of outer space.
Join the adventure HERE