Friday, February 7, 2014

New Horizons Mission Update 2/7/14


NH and flag


Mission Elapsed Time:
Beginning 1/19/06 19:00:00 UTC
2941 Days (8.06 yrs.) 08 Hours 12 Minutes

Pluto Closest Encounter
Operations Begin:
12/4/15 00:00:00 UTC
427 Days (1.67 yrs.) 20 Hours 48 Minutes

Pluto Closest Approach:
14/7/15 11:49:00 UTC
521 Days (1.42 yrs.) 08 Hours 37 Minutes

New Horizons completed a quick, two-week maintenance wakeup on Jan. 17 and is back in hibernation. They will wake the craft again in mid-June for the last active checkout, lasting about 10 weeks, on the journey to Pluto. Then back to hibernation again from late August through early December, and then they will wake New Horizons  for the encounter that she was built for.  By this time next year, New Horizons will be executing the earliest phases of the Pluto system encounter. Closest approach is now just 17 months away! That may seem like a while to you, but after almost 97 months in flight, it’s just around the corner to the team. Most people may not appreciate it, but 2014 is the last year, forever, that Pluto and its moons will be known only as points of light or smudgy images to humankind.

New Horizons Course and Position in two Dimensions:


NH #1


NH #2

Beginning this summer, the team will take you along with them more intimately on their preparations to explore the Pluto system.  The stories they are  going to tell as the encounter approaches, culminates and recedes will cover more than the progress of the encounter flight plan and the data we’ll receive —though those elements will certainly be covered well too. But in addition, it will also tell the story of how and why this mission was funded – by being ranked the No. 1 priority of the National Academy’s 2000s decadal survey in planetary science. Also, they will be talk about U.S. leadership and preeminence in planetary exploration, of which New Horizons is a one kind of demonstration. But there’s more.


Total Time of Pluto and Vicinity Encounter Observations

They will discuss the danger of debris strikes that our lone spacecraft may face as it flashes through the Pluto system on the morning of Tuesday, July 14, 2015 – and the decisions the team will have to make concerning those risks. They will discuss  the extreme degree of persistence it took on the part of the scientific community and the mission team, withering five cancellations, a plutonium fuel shortage, the death of key project engineers, and more, to get this mission funded, and built and launched on a schedule so tight that many people thought it could not be done.

pluto_closest encounter3

They will discuss what planetary scientists have discovered lately about the diversity of planets in our solar system — and that vast, new, third zone of the solar system called the Kuiper Belt. They are going to talk about New Horizons launching faster and going farther than any space mission ever has to reach its prime target. They will talk about the high-tech miniaturization that makes New Horizons the successor to the Voyagers at only a fraction of their size, mass and cost.  They will  talk about humankind’s insatiable urge to explore new frontiers.

Science at the Frontier:

Our solar system contains three zones: the inner, rocky planets; the gas giant planets; and the Kuiper Belt. Pluto is one of the largest bodies of the icy, "third zone" of our solar system. The National Academy of Sciences placed the exploration of the third zone in general - and Pluto-Charon in particular - among its highest priority planetary mission rankings for this decade. New Horizons is NASA's mission to fulfill this objective.


The Pluto Solar System and it’s newly discovered and named moons

In those zones, 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. There are far more ice dwarf planets than rocky and gas giant worlds combined - yet, no spacecraft has been sent to a planet in this class. The National Academy of Sciences noted that our knowledge of planetary types is therefore seriously incomplete. As the first mission to investigate this new class of planetary bodies, New Horizons will fill this important gap and round out our knowledge of the planets in our solar system.

NH Distance 3

As of Today

Binary Planet:

Pluto's largest moon, Charon, is half the size of Pluto. The pair form a binary planetary system, whose gravitational balance point is between the two bodies. Although binary planets are thought to be common in the galaxy, as are binary stars, no spacecraft has yet explored one. New Horizons will be the first mission to explore a binary object of any type.

Pluto and charon

Charon as seen from the surface of Pluto

Ancient Relics:


Largest Known Kuiper Belt Objects

The ice dwarfs are planetary embryos, whose growth stopped at sizes (200 to 2,000 kilometers across) much smaller than the full-grown planets in the inner solar system and the gas giants region. The ice dwarfs are ancient relics that formed over 4 billion years ago. Because they are literally the bodies out of which the larger planets accumulated, the ice dwarfs have a great deal to teach us about planetary formation. New Horizons seeks those answers.

A Mission with Impact:

The Kuiper Belt is the major source of cometary impactors on Earth, like the impactor that wiped out the dinosaurs. New Horizons will shed new light on the number of such Kuiper Belt impactors as a function of their size by cataloging the various-sized craters on Pluto, its moons, and on Kuiper Belt Objects.  Pluto and the Kuiper Belt are known to be heavily endowed with organic (carbon-bearing) molecules and water ice — the raw materials out of which life evolves. New Horizons will explore the composition of this material on the surfaces of Pluto, its moons and Kuiper Belt Objects.

The Need to Explore:

As the first voyage to a whole new class of planets in the farthest zone of the solar system, New Horizons is a historic mission of exploration. The United States has made history by being 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 - the first NASA launch to a "new" planet since Voyager more than 30 years ago - allows the U.S. to complete the reconnaissance of the solar system.

NH Kuiper Belt Rings


NH Interplanetary Cruise


Into the Kuiper Belt:

Plans for an extended mission include one to two encounters with Kuiper Belt Objects, ranging from about 25 to 55 miles (40 to 90 kilometers) in diameter. New Horizons would acquire the same data it collected at Pluto - where applicable - and follow a timeline similar to the Pluto  encounter:

Closest Approach - 4 weeks: object observations
Closest Approach + 2 weeks: post-encounter studies
Closest Approach + 2 months: all data returned to Earth

New Horizons: Going for the Planetary Gold Medal of the Planetary Space Olympics: