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New Horizons is a spacecraft currently en route to Pluto and possibly other Kuiper Belt objects. It is expected to be the first spacecraft to fly by and study Pluto and its moons, Charon, Nix, Hydra, and S/2011 P 1. Its estimated arrival in the Pluto system is July 14, 2015. After it studies that system, NASA may attempt flybys of one or more other Kuiper belt objects. The spacecraft was launched on January 19, 2006 atop an Atlas V 551 rocket. An ATK Star 48B third stage was added to all a greater heliocentric escape speed. This was the first launch of the 551 configuration and the first time an additional third stage had been added to an Atlas rocket. This additional stage gave New Horizons the speed to achieve the fastest launch speed of any man made object.
Despite its great speed, the trajectory of New Horizons has been corrected several times to take advantage of the gravity of planets along the way to increase its speed. The first of these trajectory correction maneuvers(TCM) to place on January 28 and January 30, 2006. TCM-1A allowed a total velocity change of about 18 m/s, which was accurate enough to allow the cancellation of TCM-2. On March 9, 2006 controllers performed TCM-3, changing the spacecraft’s velocity by about 1.16 m/s. On September 25, 2007 another correction was made changing the spacecraft’s velocity by 2.37 m/s, then on June 30, 2010 another TCM changed velocity by about 1 m/s. New Horizons received a Jupiter gravity assist. It passed through the Jovian system at 21 km/s and the flyby increased its speed away from the Sun by nearly 4 km/s.
The scientific instrumentation aboard the New Horizons spacecraft includes: the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI), the Pluto Exploration Remote Sensing Investigation, Pam(a plasma and high energy spectrometer grouping), the Radio Science Experiment, and the Venetia Burney Student Dust Counter (VBSDC). LORRI is designed for high resolution imaging in the visible wavelengths. It is equipped with a high-resolution 1024×1024 monochromatic CCD imager with a 208.3 mm aperture giving a resolution of 5 microradians (approximately one arcsecond). PERSI consists of two instruments: The 6 cm aperture Ralph telescope with a visible-light CCD imager with broadband and color channels and a near-infrared imaging spectrometer called LEISA (Linear Etalon Imaging Spectral Array). The second instrument is an ultraviolet imaging spectrometer named Alice. Alice resolves 1,024 wavelength bands from 180 to 50 nanometers over 32 view fields. PAM consists of two instruments: Solar Wind At Pluto(SWAP), a toroidal electrostatic analyzer and retarding potential analyzer, andPluto Energetic Particle Spectrometer Science Investigation(PEPSSI), a time of flight ion and electron sensor. REX will use an ultrastable crystal oscillator and other equipment to conduct radio science investigations using the communications channels. VBSDC will search for dust particles continuously throughout the mission. It consists of a detector panel mounted on the anti-solar face of the spacecraft and an electronics box within the spacecraft. No dust counter has operated past the orbit of Uranus, so models of dust in the outer Solar System are purely theoretical.
Six months prior to closest approach, New Horizons will begin studying Pluto and its moons. The hope is to characterize and measure Pluto’s surface and atmosphere as well as those if its moons. Additional study will hopefully allow scientist to understand the geology and morphology of each body observed.
Here are a few articles about New Horizons written for Universe Today.
New Horizons Flies by Uranus
New Horizons Mission Practices Telescopic Imager on Pluto’s Twin
We’ve also recorded an entire episode of Astronomy Cast all about Pluto and the Icy Solar System. Listen here, Episode 64: Pluto and the Icy Solar System.