The first spacecraft designed to study Pluto, the last planet in our solar system, arrived at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center today for a series of pre-launch checkouts.
“The New Horizons mission to Pluto is an historic journey of exploration to unlock secrets from a mysterious planet so distant that the Sun is just a bright star in the sky.” said Dr. Ed Weiler, GSFC Director. How distant? If New Horizons launches on schedule in January 2006, it will begin its five-month-long flyby reconnaissance of Pluto in the summer of 2015.
The spacecraft will be at Goddard for the next three months where team members will check New Horizons’ balance and alignment in a series of spin tests; put it before wall-sized speakers that simulate the noisy vibrations of launch; and seal it for several weeks in a four-story thermal-vacuum chamber that duplicates the extreme cold and airless conditions of space.
New Horizons is the first mission to Pluto and its moon, Charon. As part of an extended mission, the spacecraft would head deeper into the Kuiper Belt to study one or more of the icy mini worlds in that vast region. New Horizons is scheduled for launch in from Cape Canaveral (Florida) aboard a Lockheed Martin Atlas V rocket.
New Horizons is carrying an extensive complement of science instruments. The main objectives are to obtain high resolution color and surface composition maps of the surfaces of Pluto and Charon. Images will be sent back to earth in visible light wavelength to produce color maps, and at infrared wavelengths to map the distribution of frosts of methane, molecular nitrogen, carbon monoxide, and water over the surface of Pluto and the water frost distribution over the surface of Charon.
New Horizons is the first mission in NASA’s New Frontiers program of medium-class, high-priority solar system exploration projects. Lauching a spacecraft to our solar system’s most distant planet is a landmark accomplishment for humanity, and a proud moment for NASA scientists and engineers.
(Where Michael Jackson is presumed innocent.)