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Forum:Satellites - Robotic Probes
Topic:NASA's New Horizons to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt
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The first 13 months of the mission include spacecraft and instrument checkouts, instrument calibrations and trajectory correction maneuvers.

There will also be rehearsals for an encounter with Jupiter in spring 2007, in which the giant planet will provide a slingshot-like gravity boost that could save New Horizons up to three years of flight time. This encounter will be followed by an approximately eight-year cruise to Pluto.

PhilipThe PI's Perspective
1,000 Days on the Road to Pluto - Time Flies and So Does New Horizons

It's hard to believe, but Oct. 15 will be the 1,000th day of flight for New Horizons. And in that time we've traveled so far that only four other spacecraft - Pioneers 10 and 11 and Voyagers 1 and 2 - have ventured farther. Can you believe it's been this long? Sometimes it seems so, but other times, it seems like we just blasted off from Florida on that cool afternoon of Jan. 19, 2006.

Of course, it's been a busy 1,000 days for everyone involved. After an exciting launch day none of us will ever forget, we spent the first four months of flight checking out our spacecraft systems and making the initial course corrections to put us right down the middle of the pike to our Jupiter flyby aim point.

Robert PearlmancollectSPACE
To Pluto, with postage

Have you heard the one about the two men looking to launch a probe to Pluto who went to Burger King to find a part for their spacecraft?

DChudwinNASA release
Rise and Shine: New Horizons Wakes for Annual Checkout

New Horizons is up from the longest nap of its cruise to Pluto, as operators "woke" the spacecraft from hibernation yesterday for its annual series of checkouts and tests.

The actual wake-up call went in months ago; the commands for New Horizons to power up and reawaken its hibernating systems were radioed to its computer before it entered hibernation on Dec. 16, 2008. During hibernation, as the spacecraft traveled almost 200 million miles toward its goal -- the Pluto system -- New Horizons sent back weekly status reports as well as biweekly engineering telemetry reports.

Then at 6:30 a.m. EDT on July 7, operators at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab (APL) in Laurel, Md., contacted the craft through NASA's Deep Space Network and began downloading data on its health.

"Everything is working normally," says Alice Bowman, New Horizons mission operations manager at APL. "You're a little anxious because you have to turn on a lot of computer processors - they'd been off for 202 days - and you always take a chance when you turn something off in space. But the systems look good."

Tagged "ACO-3," New Horizons' third annual checkout offers the team a chance to flight-test some spacecraft updates, such as new software that manages the solid-state data recorders. The team will also turn on and check each of the seven science instruments, as well as the power, propulsion, and guidance and control systems.

Mission Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo., says this ACO differs from the first two. "The ACOs have now become a summer event, switching from the fall to allow the team to get into the rhythm of spring planning and summer activity necessary for the July 2015 encounter at Pluto," he says.

"The second and even more significant difference between past wakeups and this one is that we're going to minimize activities in this ACO to save time for our mission planners, who are working hard to finish their Pluto encounter close-approach sequencing job by next year," he continues. "And the minimal wakeup also saves us fuel, since we won't be de-spinning the spacecraft, conducting complex pointed observations with our scientific instruments, and then spinning up again to prepare for the next hibernation cycle."

The only busy scientific instrument on the spacecraft over the past eight months was the Venetia Burney Student Dust Counter (VBSDC), which quietly collected information on the number of dust particles along New Horizons' path through the outer solar system. During the spacecraft's trek through hibernation - which covered 1.91 astronomical units, or more than 177 million miles - VBSDC was calibrated to gain information on the amount of background noise that can affect the science data and to test the sensitivity of its internal electronics. That dust counter data will be sent back to Earth this week.

"Students will analyze that data over the coming months and compare it to earlier measurements made closer to the Sun," says Andrew Poppe, lead graduate student on the SDC team at the University of Colorado, Boulder. "This will really improve our understanding of the dust environment in the outer solar system."

New Horizons is now 1.19 billion miles (nearly 1.92 billion kilometers) from Earth, speeding away from the Sun at just over 10 miles per second. At that distance, radio signals (traveling at light speed) from home need an hour and 46 minutes to reach the spacecraft. The spacecraft is scheduled to complete ACO-3 and re-enter hibernation on August 27.

The hibernation period from December 16, 2008 to July 7, 2009 was the longest planned before New Horizons reaches Pluto. The previous record was 91 days, from June 3 - September 2, 2008. Hibernation periods of approximately 136 days are planned for 2012 and 2014.

Robert PearlmanNASA release
Course Correction Keeps New Horizons on Path to Pluto

A short but important course-correction maneuver kept New Horizons on track to reach the "aim point" for its 2015 encounter with Pluto.

The deep-space equivalent of a tap on the gas pedal, the June 30 thruster-firing lasted 35.6 seconds and sped New Horizons up by just about one mile per hour. But it was enough to make sure that New Horizons will make its planned closest approach 7,767 miles (12,500 kilometers) above Pluto at 7:49 a.m. EDT on July 14, 2015.

Reflections: What "pushed" New Horizons slightly off course? According to mission navigation team members from KinetX, Inc., it was a tiny amount of force created from thermal photons from New Horizons' radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG) power source - reflecting off the backside of the spacecraft's high-gain antenna.
Commands for the preprogrammed maneuver were transmitted to the spacecraft's computers on June 24; the burn went off as planned Wednesday at 3 p.m. EDT. New Horizons was more than 1.49 billion miles (2.4 billion kilometers) from Earth at the time of the maneuver; at that distance, nearing the orbit of Uranus, a radio signal from the spacecraft needs more than 2 hours, 13 minutes to reach Earth.

Mission operators at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., received confirmation of the successful firing through NASA's Deep Space Network antenna station near Madrid, Spain.

  • The New Horizons propulsion system uses hydrazine, an efficient "monopropellant" fuel used on many satellites. (Monopropellant means the fuel burns without the help of a separate oxidizer.) For extra efficiency the fuel on New Horizons is heated before it's burned.

  • This was the fourth trajectory correction maneuver, or "TCM," since New Horizons launched on January 19, 2006.
Robert PearlmanJHU/APL release
Later, Uranus: New Horizons Passes Another Planetary Milestone

New Horizons is ready to put another planet - or at least the planet's orbit - in its rearview mirror. The Pluto-bound spacecraft crosses the path of Uranus around 6 p.m. EDT on March 18, more than 1.8 billion miles from Earth.

"New Horizons is all about delayed gratification, and our 9 1/2-year cruise to the Pluto system illustrates that," says Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute. "Crossing the orbit of Uranus is another milepost along our long journey to the very frontier of exploration."

New Horizons is headed for a rendezvous with planet Pluto and its three moons in July 2015 and, soon after, possible encounters with smaller bodies in the distant Kuiper Belt. The fastest spacecraft ever launched, New Horizons has already covered serious space since lifting off in January 2006 -- traversing 20 times the distance between Earth and the sun, including a flight through the Jupiter system in 2007 for a gravity-assisted speed boost and scientific observations of the giant planet and its largest moons.

"This mission is a marathon," says Project Manager Glen Fountain, of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. "The New Horizons team has been focused on keeping the spacecraft on course and preparing for Pluto. So far, so good, and we are working to keep it that way."

When has New Horizons passed the other planetary orbits? Check here.

No pictures of Uranus are planned -- the gas giant is 2.4 billion miles from New Horizons and the spacecraft is currently in electronic sleep mode -- but the mission team on Earth is busy enough, putting final touches on its Pluto-encounter plan and, in April, starting a search for potential flyby targets in the Kuiper Belt. Preparations are also under way for the annual spacecraft systems checkout this spring.

Next planetary milestone on New Horizons' voyage is the orbit of Neptune, which it crosses on Aug. 25, 2014 -- exactly 25 years after Voyager 2 made its historic exploration of that giant planet.

Robert PearlmanJHU/APL release
New Horizons Becomes Closest Spacecraft to Approach Pluto

NASA's New Horizons mission reached a special milestone Friday (Dec. 2, 2011) on its way to reconnoiter the Pluto system, coming closer to Pluto than any other spacecraft.

It's taken New Horizons 2,143 days of high-speed flight – covering more than a million kilometers per day for nearly six years – to break the closest-approach mark set by NASA's Voyager 1 in January 1986. Pluto wasn't on Voyager's mission path, but after making historic flybys of Jupiter in 1979 and Saturn in 1980, the intrepid probe came about 983 million miles (1.58 billion kilometers) from Pluto as it raced to the solar system's outskirts.

Now New Horizons, which is healthy, on course and closer to Pluto than Voyager ever came, will continue to set proximity-to-Pluto records every day until its closest approach — about 7,767 miles (12,500 kilometers) from the planet — on July 14, 2015.

"We've come a long way across the solar system," says Glen Fountain, New Horizons project manager at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. "When we launched [on Jan. 19, 2006] it seemed like our 10-year journey would take forever, but those years have been passing us quickly. We're almost six years in flight, and it's just about three years until our encounter begins."

From New Horizons' current distance to Pluto – as far as Earth is (on average) from Saturn – Pluto remains just a faint point of light. But by the time New Horizons sails through the Pluto system in mid-2015, the planet and its moons will be so close that the spacecraft's cameras will spot features as small as a football field.

"What a cool milestone!" says New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute. "Although we're still a long way — 1.5 billion kilometers from Pluto — we're now in new territory as the closest any spacecraft has ever gotten to Pluto, and getting closer every day by over a million kilometers.

"I wonder how long it will be until the next Pluto spacecraft — perhaps a future orbiter or lander — crosses this distance marker?" he continues. "It could be decades."

New Horizons is currently in hibernation, with all but its most essential systems turned off, speeding away from the Sun at more than 34,500 miles (55,500 kilometers) per hour. Operators at the Applied Physics Lab will "wake" the spacecraft in January for a month of testing and maintenance activities.

Robert PearlmanJHU/APL release
New Horizons Camera Spots Pluto's Largest Moon

NASA's Pluto-bound New Horizons spacecraft, using its highest-resolution telescopic camera, has spotted Pluto's Texas-sized, ice-covered moon Charon for the first time. This represents a major milestone on the spacecraft's 9.5-year journey to conduct the initial reconnaissance of the Pluto system and the Kuiper Belt and, in a sense, begins the mission's long-range study of the Pluto system.

The largest of Pluto's five known moons, Charon orbits about 12,000 miles (more than 19,000 kilometers) away from Pluto itself. As seen from New Horizons, that's only about 0.01 degrees away.

Above: New Horizons LOng Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) composite image showing the detection of Pluto’s largest moon, Charon, cleanly separated from Pluto itself. (NASA/JHU-APL/SwRI)

"The image itself might not look very impressive to the untrained eye, but compared to the discovery images of Charon from Earth, these 'discovery' images from New Horizons look great!" says New Horizons Project Scientist Hal Weaver, of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, Laurel, Md. "We're very excited to see Pluto and Charon as separate objects for the first time from New Horizons."

The spacecraft was still 550 million miles from Pluto – farther than the distance from Earth to Jupiter – when its LOng Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) snapped a total of six images: three on July 1 and three more on July 3. LORRI's excellent sensitivity and spatial resolution revealed Charon at exactly the predicted offset from Pluto, 35 years after the announcement of Charon's discovery in 1978 by James Christy of the Naval Observatory.

"In addition to being a nice technical achievement, these new LORRI images of Charon and Pluto should provide some interesting science too," says New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute. New Horizons is viewing Pluto and Charon at solar phase angles (the angles between the Sun, Pluto and spacecraft) much larger than can be achieved from observatories located on or near the Earth, potentially yielding important information about the surface properties of Charon and Pluto – perhaps the existence of an overlying layer of fine particles, for example.

"We're excited to have our first pixel on Charon," Stern continues, "but two years from now, near closest approach, we'll have almost a million pixels on Charon –and I expect we'll be about a million times happier too!"

See here for discussion of NASA's New Horizons to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt.

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