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NASA Mission New Horizons

NASA Mission New Horizons

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NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft launched in 2006, flying past Pluto and its five moons for the first time ever – providing us with our closest up-close view yet of this dwarf planet’s atmosphere, surface, and Kuiper Belt of small icy objects.

What is New Horizons?

New Horizons was the first spacecraft ever launched to explore Pluto and its moons up close, beginning on January 19, 2006 and reaching Jupiter 13 months later to gain acceleration and modify its path toward Pluto. Equipped with seven science instruments and equipped with a 70-meter (230-ft) antenna whose purpose was observing attenuation of radio signals as they crossed Pluto’s atmosphere, New Horizons provided unprecedented access.

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New Horizons made an unprecedented flyby of Pluto in July 2015 and discovered it may contain underground oceans. Additionally, mountain peaks with deep pits could have resulted from volcanic eruptions discharging slushy ice flows; along with numerous craters and crevasses as well as vast glacier-filled basins on its surface.

Pluto’s distance from Earth presented mission designers with some serious power and communication challenges, particularly solar panel output at this distant location being limited by limited sunlight reaching Earth; one-way communications would take nearly five hours from there back home from Pluto probe. 

To address these difficulties, mission planners decided on using a small nuclear reactor on board — with its own plutonium fuel as fuel — as an electrical energy generator to supply electrical energy for power production on board probe.

New Horizons was designed with a plutonium reactor intended to last decades, giving enough time for New Horizons to complete its exploration of the outer Solar System. After encountering Pluto, New Horizons will travel deeper into the Kuiper Belt where other objects and phenomena will be observed as well as research conducted into how solar wind behaves further from our Sun.

New Horizons also collected invaluable data during its flyby of Pluto, collecting images that revealed many of its five moons’ unique features and interactions with Pluto. Furthermore, New Horizons observed how Pluto’s icy surface changes over time: Sputnik Planitia recently resurfaced from melting; other areas displayed signs of geological activity – for instance a glacier-filled basin may be flowing.

It even observed the surface of an object called Arrokoth located within Kuiper Belt which it sent back detailed maps depicting its lumpy bi-lobed surface! In 2019 New Horizons also observed and sent back detailed maps depicting its lumpy, bi-lobed surface features – another Kuiper Belt object known as Arrokoth was observed and detailed maps depicting its bi-lobed surface features with maps showing its two distinct surfaces!

How Did New Horizons Get to Pluto?

After robotic spacecraft had visited all planets from Mercury to Neptune by 1989, it became evident that Pluto and its vast Kuiper Belt of icy objects beyond would require its own dedicated spacecraft for exploration. 

After years of push from The Planetary Society members for this mission to happen, in 2001 NASA approved New Horizons – designed specifically to fly past Pluto and Charon while studying Kuiper Belt objects as well.

New Horizons was launched on Jan. 19, 2006 and took advantage of Jupiter’s gravity assist to make its journey shorter; nonetheless, New Horizons traveled over 3 billion miles on its journey before finally arriving at Pluto.

As part of its voyage, this piano-sized craft captured stunning pictures of Jupiter and its moons while conducting various scientific experiments. For instance, its Kuiper Belt Object Survey team utilized Hubble Space Telescope to discover three potential Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs) to fly by after Pluto between 2018 and 2019.

As New Horizons neared Pluto, its scientists were delighted to discover that both it and its four small satellites – including two distinct pairs of ice-covered, flat peaks known as Styx and Kerberos – appear different than anticipated. 

They found, for instance, that Pluto’s mysterious “heart” region features more youthful terrain than anywhere else on its surface, and satellites like Hydra are faster rotating than originally anticipated (one even spins once every 10 hours!).

NASA and New Horizons controllers remained wary during their encounter with Pluto in July 2015. Any collision with debris would pose a grave danger, so controllers put New Horizons into hibernation for navigation and system checks – with periodic wakeups for navigation or system tests only. 

New Horizons did not transmit data back to Earth during its closest approach but, once passed safely past them, controllers awakened it so download of 6.25 gigabytes of information it had collected could begin immediately.

What Will New Horizons See?

Launched from Cape Canaveral in January 2006, New Horizons was one of the fastest spacecraft ever sent into space. After nine years and nine months to Pluto, when New Horizons arrived there in July 2015 astronomers discovered an amazingly diverse world comprised of towering water-ice mountains and vast plains of exotic nitrogen ice. Since then it has continued its extended mission mode, speeding deeper into the Kuiper Belt region to investigate ancient and frozen worlds that lie beyond Neptune.

Scientists expect the mission to return a wealth of data, including unprecedented closeups of Charon and Styx – two moons of Pluto – as well as details about Sputnik Planitia. Scientists have already used the probe to demonstrate that Pluto is smaller than previously believed while unveiling more intricate surface features.

As an added treat in 2019, New Horizons made an unexpected flyby of an icy body named Arrokoth – by pure chance, as its proximity coincided with New Horizon’s limited fuel reserves – as part of its journey across space. Astronomers hope that New Horizons can make another close encounter in future; currently they’re searching the outer Solar System for potential targets for its close encounters.

New Horizons relies heavily on light-curves and light-scattering measurements to decide whether it can visit an icy body, which provide valuable insight into its surface composition. 

To gather this information, its camera will capture images that will then be processed to assess their content; after which astronomers attempt to match up these pictures against existing models of an icy body’s surface structure.

Final step will involve measuring a potential target’s size using dust detectors of the probe, which can measure how much material covers a body’s surface. Once measured, they’ll compare results against predictions made based on mass, surface temperature and other variables to see which fits better.

Because New Horizons is so far away, any data transmitted by its probe takes over 4.5 hours to reach Earth via radio signals picked up by 200-foot-wide dishes in California and Australia. As a result, 16 months may pass before all of New Horizons data reaches computers on Earth.

What Will New Horizons Do?

New Horizons first captured close-up images of Pluto and its moons in July 2015, followed by another close flyby nine years later in 2019, as it revisited Kuiper Belt object Arrokoth. Both encounters produced transformative data; yet while astronomers celebrated these accomplishments, New Horizons team is now grappling with how best to move forward with future exploration missions.

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Answering this question can be complicated, since Pluto resides within the outer solar system’s Kuiper Belt – a region of comets, asteroids and other objects that could hit New Horizons at 10 miles per second as it travels through. New Horizons scientists designed its mission so as to mitigate any such dangers – for instance if any celestial debris were to get caught in its path – in advance by transmitting data before its flyby so as to take corrective actions before any collision took place.

As a result, New Horizons successfully navigated through Pluto without encountering any hazards or altering its flight trajectory. Unfortunately, Kuiper Belt remains out there, with New Horizons’ fuel reserves diminishing rapidly; therefore, the team is considering altering New Horizons’ focus from Pluto-related data gathering to low-level data collection about heliophysics (the solar system’s outer plasma environment).

To achieve this, the spacecraft would require additional instruments that are currently unplanned for. With these new instruments in hand, researchers could study Pluto’s rings, atmosphere and interior structures more comprehensively than ever before as well as gain more insight into what shaped its evolution from an active planet into its current inactive ball of ice state.

Ultimately, New Horizons may continue on its journey through our solar system with this plan being approved. On New Year’s Day 2021, Ultima Thule (pronounced “ul-TILL-ee”) could mark humanity’s first close encounter with our distant Kuiper Belt region of icy worlds.

Frequently Asked Questions

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft took off from Earth on January 19, 2006 for its landmark visit of Pluto and its moons on July 15, 2015, marking their inaugural mission exploring Pluto, Kuiper Belt objects, and any icy worlds beyond Neptune.

Pluto, with its five moons, is 49 times further from the sun than Earth. But due to its highly elliptical orbit it occasionally passes closer.

New Horizons revealed that Tombaugh Regio (named for Clyde Tombaugh who discovered Pluto in 1930) is covered with nitrogen ice; it’s possible that once liquid ocean flowed there.

After robotic spacecraft visited each planet from Mercury to Neptune, astronomers noticed that Pluto seemed to have an orbital companion called Charon; named for a Greek mythological figure who served as ferryman to Styx in Hades.

NASA’s New Horizons flew past Pluto in 2015 and revealed an active world full of towering nitrogen cliffs taller than skyscrapers and active volcanoes that resemble Mount Everest. On its far side was a chaotic mess of ridges, craters, and plains which provided more evidence that Pluto may host subsurface oceans similar to those found on Jupiter’s moon Europa or Saturn’s Enceladus.

Before July 2016, scientists believed Pluto lacked any atmosphere. At its frigid temperatures, nitrogen molecules that make up its atmosphere only slowly turn to gaseous form over time if at all.

New Horizons scientists were stunned to discover that both Pluto and Charon are complex bodies despite their relatively small sizes and cold temperatures, featuring nitrogen ice glaciers, mountains, and even volcanoes – evidence showing these objects have relatively recent geologic histories.

Pluto lies far away from the Sun, so its surface temperatures have plummeted to an unbearably cold -360 degrees Fahrenheit. At these temperatures, nitrogen and methane ices change directly into gaseous forms to form an atmosphere surrounding this distant world.

Pluto boasts many peculiar surface features. One such is a set of bright, mottled spots known as maculae that scientists refer to as penitentes on Earth but much larger; they appear on both its far and near sides and may exist even where New Horizons was unable to reach.

Tombaugh Regio provides an incredible view of Pluto’s near side, including dark streaks a few miles long that seem sculpted by harsh winds. These contrast with Oz Terra erupting from Pluto’s rock core.

Pluto’s interior reveals an abundance of flat plains and craters adorned with nitrogen- and carbon monoxide-ice deposits as well as trace amounts of methane ices, suggesting its surface features a dark icy coating.


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