NASA's New Horizons spacecraft launched aboard an Atlas V rocket today at 2:00 p.m. EST from Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The unmanned probe is headed for a distant rendezvous with the planet Pluto in July 2015.
Credit: collectSPACE.com/Robert Z. Pearlman
Two consecutive launch attempts earlier this week were foiled by high winds at the launch site and a power outage at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., which operates the spacecraft now that the mission is underway.
As the first spacecraft to visit Pluto and its moon Charon, New Horizons looks to unlock one of the solar system's last, great planetary secrets. The New Horizons spacecraft will cross the entire span of the solar system and conduct flyby studies of Pluto and Charon. The seven science instruments on the piano-sized probe will shed light on the bodies' surface properties, geology, interior makeup and atmospheres.
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.