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New Horizons Spacecraft Arrives at Pluto


After travelling through space for nine years and more than 4 billion kilometers, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft arrives at Pluto tomorrow at 5 PM Pacific Standard Time. Since Pluto’s discovery in 1930, details of the dwarf planet‘s composition and characteristics have been slim. We’ve learned that Pluto is a terrestrial dwarf-sized planetoid with a nitrogen, methane, and carbon-monoxide atmosphere, and a rocky core and a mantel of ice (or so we think anyway), and Pluto might possibly have a subsurface liquid ocean. Pluto has a few other interesting elements too, such as Pluto’s five moons and its unique orbit with the largest of the five moons, Charon. But now all that is about to change, and for the first time in human history, we are finally going to learn what Pluto is all about.

The New Horizon Spacecraft is equipped to study Pluto’s atmosphere, surface features and geological structures, the effects of solar winds on Pluto, and even measure space dust.


New Horizons spacecraft Instruments. Image Courtesy of NASA

The equipment onboard the spacecraft includes:

  • Ralph: Visible and infrared imager/spectrometer; provides color, composition and thermal maps.
  • Alice: Ultraviolet imaging spectrometer; analyzes composition and structure of Pluto’s atmosphere and looks for atmospheres around Charon and Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs).
  • REX: (Radio Science EXperiment) Measures atmospheric composition and temperature; passive radiometer.
  • LORRI: (Long Range Reconnaissance Imager) telescopic camera; obtains encounter data at long distances, maps Pluto’s farside and provides high resolution geologic data.
  • SWAP: (Solar Wind Around Pluto) Solar wind and plasma spectrometer; measures atmospheric “escape rate” and observes Pluto’s interaction with solar wind.
  • PEPSSI: (Pluto Energetic Particle Spectrometer Science Investigation) Energetic particle spectrometer; measures the composition and density of plasma (ions) escaping from Pluto’s atmosphere.
  • SDC: (Student Dust Counter) Built and operated by students; measures the space dust peppering New Horizons during its voyage across the solar system.

The Mission

The New Horizon spacecraft was launched January 19, 2006 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida aboard an Atlas V rocket. After leaving Earth’s atmosphere and gravity field, New Horizons reached speeds of 16.21KM/s (58 000km/h or 36 000 mph) with respect to Earth. The first part of the mission would take about a year while on approach to Jupiter. During this time, NASA ran New Horizons through series of tests and recalibrations. As new Horizons flew into Jupiter’s gravitational field in February 2008, it was being pulled in faster and and sling-shotted to the outer part of the solar system towards Pluto, now travelling at 20.21 KM/s (72.76 KM/h or 45208.5 mph).

The New Horizon Spacecraft Mission - Image Courtesy of NASA

The New Horizon Spacecraft Mission – Image Courtesy of NASA

Now that New Horizons has made the nine year journey to Pluto, the spacecraft will scan the atmosphere and take high-res, ultraviolet, and infrared images of the atmosphere and surface, as well as measure solar winds and measure the composition and density of plasma (ions) escaping from Pluto’s atmosphere. That information will be transmitted back to Earth over the next 16 months. Meanwhile, New Horizons will begin the next phase of it’s journey through the solar system as it heads out to the Kuiper Belt where hopefully,  it will explore some of the objects there.

 Update: New Horizons Phones Home!

July 14, 2015 – New Horizons Phoned Home! The world waited with baited breath for New Horizons to phone home and let us back here on Earth that New Horizons is in great shape and eager to continue the mission to the Kaiper Belt. NASA, in true NASA form televised the whole event, and here is that video!

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