Where Is the New Horizons Spacecraft?

by Nancy Atkinson on June 9, 2008

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Even though New Horizons is the speediest spacecraft ever to travel through our solar system, it still has a long way to go on its voyage to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt. However, New Horizons hit an interplanetary milepost yesterday, June 8, by crossing the orbit of Saturn. At 1.5 billion kilometers or 935 million miles (10.06 astronomical units) distant, that’s a mission’s worth of space for most spacecraft. But for New Horizons, it’s just another interplanetary point on its voyage to the outer reaches of our solar system. As a testament to New Horizons’ speed, the spacecraft set a record for the fastest transit to Saturn by any spacecraft, making the trip in two years and four months. Voyager 1, the previous record holder, made the journey in approximately three years and two months.

Still aiming for its arrival at the Pluto/Charon system in July of 2015, New Horizons’ mission managers tell us the spacecraft is healthy, and in electronic hibernation. After a productive two-week series of system checks, maintenance activities, and software and command uploads, New Horizons is humming through the outer solar system at 65,740 kilometers per hour (40,850 mph). The team expects to keep the spacecraft in hibernation until Sept. 2.

Although the first 13 months of the mission kept the New Horizons team pretty busy, through its encounter with and gravity assist from Jupiter in February 2007, the next few years will probably be fairly quiet for the mission’s scientists and engineers.

In a previous interview, Alan Stern, New Horizons’ Principle Investigator told Universe Today, “The middle years will be long and probably, and hopefully, pretty boring. But it will include yearly spacecraft and instrument checkouts, trajectory corrections, instrument calibrations and rehearsals for the main mission.” During the last three years of the interplanetary cruise mission, Stern said teams will be writing, testing and uploading the highly detailed command script for the Pluto/Charon encounter. The mission begins in earnest approximately a year before the spacecraft arrives at Pluto, as it begins to photograph the region.

As New Horizons crossed Saturn’s orbit yesterday, the ringed planet was nowhere to be seen, as it was more than 2.3 billion kilometers (1.4 billion miles) away from the spacecraft.

And speaking of the Voyager spacecraft (way back in the first paragraph), Voyagers 1 and 2 are at the edge of the Sun’s heliosphere some 100 AU away, and are the only spacecraft operating farther out than New Horizons.

The next big milepost on New Horizons’ journey? Crossing the orbit of Uranus, on March 18, 2011.

Original News Source: New Horizons Press Release

About 

Nancy Atkinson is Universe Today's Senior Editor. She also is the host of the NASA Lunar Science Institute podcast and works with Astronomy Cast. Nancy is also a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.

website design June 10, 2008 at 5:33 AM

Thanks for posting this! It is interesting!

Ralph G June 10, 2008 at 6:33 AM

I’m guessing the speeds as quoted are New Horizons velocity receeding from the sun?

Sili June 10, 2008 at 6:59 AM

Is NH just gonna swing by Pluto fast or is there some way of braking the poor thing when it arrives?

greg c June 10, 2008 at 7:01 AM

at that speed it will still take another 7 years to reach Pluto and Charon. really puts an image in my head of how huge just our solar system really is. fascinating!

Al Hall June 10, 2008 at 8:44 AM

I also like stories like this. Puts things in a little more perspective.
I think, though, that the Pioneer spacecraft should have also gotten a little credit in the article. Maybe they still are operational, but we just can’t communicate with them.. Just my two cents worth.. :-)

jasond June 10, 2008 at 9:09 AM

@ greg c:

Funny you should say that, I was just thinking the same thing. With all the news UT publishes on deep space and extra-galactic phenomena, it’s kind of made the Universe seem that much bigger while seemingly dwarfing our own solar system when, in reality, the Sol system is still essentially massive in scale. The snippet in this article that hit me the most was that the next big milestone for this craft is crossing Uranus’ orbit just shy of three years from now. While NH’s speed of 65,740 kph seems blazing fast to me, it’s humbling to realize light from the Sun will travel that same distance in just 2.66h. It’s amazing we have the patience for it but the payoff in the end always seems worth it. Hopefully when Pan-STARRS comes online next year, astronomers will discover new and interesting TNOs/KBOs for New Horizons to swing by and photograph, as well. Looking forward to seeing the outer solar system in high-res…

greg c June 10, 2008 at 9:57 AM

jasond

i agree with everything you posted.
it’s also amazing to me that the sun is that massive that it’s pull can still attract these objects that are so far away from it.

neat!

billymac1 June 10, 2008 at 11:44 AM

I think it’s fascinating to contemplate where far-flung human-made objects are at this point. As nancy said “operational spacecraft” farther out than NH only includes the two Voyagers. Unfortunately, the Pioneers 10 and 11 are now silent, so for our purposes, even if their RTGs are still generating power at some level or another. However, it’d be a fascinating project for some properly-inclined person to calculate with whatever information is available on last known speeds, trajectories, etc as to where the two Pioneers are, as well as the flyby Mariner missions and any other early planetary or lunar flyby missions where the hardware just flew past its target and after a while was turned off. One would assume these dead machines are also on their way out of the solar system. Where are THEY as of this date in terms of AU from the sun and general direction?

billymac1 June 10, 2008 at 12:06 PM

You know, a quick look at a wikipedia entry on “list of artifical objects escaping the solar system” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_artificial_objects_escaping_from_the_Solar_System makes me think that none of the objects outside the two Pioneers, two Voyagers, and New Horizons, as well as their upper stages, have the required escape velocity and have become solar orbiting objects instead. Welcome anyone’s further discussion or insight on it!

MikeM June 10, 2008 at 2:33 PM

Here’s a look at where both Pioneers and Voyagers are right now:

http://www.heavens-above.com/solar-escape.asp

New Horizons isn’t plotted in the pictures but is included in the data table.

jasond June 10, 2008 at 8:08 PM

If you have a decent machine, you can grab Celestia and monitor the course of New Horizons – even fast forward to 2015. There’s a great-looking 3d model available in the ‘Motherlode’ add-ons.

http://www.shatters.net/celestia/

GeorgetteT October 6, 2008 at 12:49 AM

We all know how curious we are. How much more would it have cost to piggyback a orbiter to stay in the Pluto system. Is it possible to have interested donations from around the world to achieve this extra. Now we will probably only have one side of Pluto in reasonable detail
Perhaps Macdonalds might want to place a add on the side of New Horizons.
We will all see these spacecraft again in a musium on Earth, hundreds of years from now when our space travel speeds catch up and retieves them.

William Robinson January 3, 2009 at 10:20 AM

Hi from England. I am very fascinated by the New Horizons probe, the Voyagers, the Pioneers, and all other such craft.
A while ago I saw a website which had a “running clock” which was quite literally ticking-off the miles travelled by New Horizons, and how far it had to go to Pluto. It was amazing to see how fast it was going, with the digits absolutely flying by. 100 kilometers in just a few seconds!
Unfortunately I cannot now find this site, so if anyone knows the address pls be so kind as to post it. I would also like to see NASA put up a running clock for the Voyager and Pioneer probes, in terms of their distance from the Sun.
Have a nice day!! Bill.

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