New Horizons: approaching Pluto
In January 2006, the New Horizon spacecraft was launched from Cape Canaveral on a decade long journey to visit Pluto. In late August of the same year, about mid-way between Mars and Jupiter, the little probe would have received word that Pluto had been re-classified a “dwarf planet”.
Approximately eight years have passed since then. In early December 2014, New Horizons will be awoken for the final time to prepare for its rendezvous with Pluto.
Until now, the best images of Pluto that we have had were taken the Hubble space telescope. Despite the blurriness of Hubble’s photos, New Horizons is going to have to get a lot closer to do better. With arrival scheduled for the 14th of July 2015, the probe will finally be near enough to take better photos in May 2015.
In addition to Pluto, the probe will also study its moons Charon, Hydra, Nix, Kerberos and Styx. It’s gong to have to work fast because it will be passing by at nearly 13.8 kilometres / 8.6 miles per second. This is a flyby mission. New Horizons doesn’t carry enough fuel onboard to stop.
After passing Pluto, the spacecraft will be directed to flyby any Kupier belt objects that lay in its path. The Kupier belt is a cloud of icy asteroids that lie beyond the orbit of Neptune. This is a region of our solar system that is similar to the asteroid belt, but much larger. Since the year 2000, a number of Kupier belt objects have been discovered that are over half the size of Pluto. If any of them lie near New Horizons’ trajectory, it would be an ideal opportunity to learn more.
Its mission is expected to end in 2026. Like the Voyager probes before it, New Horizons’ high velocity will carry it out of our solar system never to return.
You can play with a 3D model of New Horizons in the full version of Solar System Explorer HD.