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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!"

Robert PearlmanNASA release
NASA Hubble to Begin Search Beyond Pluto for a New Horizons Mission Target

After careful consideration and analysis, the Hubble Space Telescope Time Allocation Committee has recommended using Hubble to search for an object the Pluto-bound NASA New Horizons mission could visit after its flyby of Pluto in July 2015.

The planned search will involve targeting a small area of sky in search of a Kuiper Belt object (KBO) for the outbound spacecraft to visit. The Kuiper Belt is a vast debris field of icy bodies left over from the solar system's formation 4.6 billion years ago. A KBO has never been seen up close because the belt is so far from the sun, stretching out to a distance of 5 billion miles into a never-before-visited frontier of the solar system.

"I am pleased that our science peer-review process arrived at a consensus as to how to effectively use Hubble's unique capabilities to support the science goals of the New Horizons mission," said Matt Mountain, director of the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, Maryland.

Fully carrying out the KBO search is contingent on the results from a pilot observation using Hubble data.

The space telescope will scan an area of sky in the direction of the constellation Sagittarius to try and identify any objects orbiting within the Kuiper Belt. To discriminate between a foreground KBO and the clutter of background stars in Sagittarius, the telescope will turn at the predicted rate that KBOs are moving against the background stars. In the resulting images, the stars will be streaked, but any KBOs should appear as pinpoint objects.

If the test observation identifies at least two KBOs of a specified brightness it will demonstrate statistically that Hubble has a chance of finding an appropriate KBO for New Horizons to visit. At that point, an additional allotment of observing time will continue the search across a field of view roughly the angular size of the full moon.

Astronomers around the world apply for observing time on the Hubble Space Telescope. Competition for time on the telescope is extremely intense and the requested observing time significantly exceeds the observing time available in a given year. Proposals must address significant astronomical questions that can only be addressed with Hubble's unique capabilities, and are beyond the capabilities of ground-based telescopes. The proposals are peer reviewed annually by an expert committee, which looks for the best possible science that can be conducted by Hubble and recommends to the Space Telescope Science Institute director a balanced program of small, medium, and large investigations.

Though Hubble is powerful enough to see galaxies near the horizon of the universe, finding a KBO is a challenging needle-in-haystack search. A typical KBO along the New Horizons trajectory may be no larger than Manhattan Island and as black as charcoal.

Even before the launch of New Horizons in 2006, Hubble has provided consistent support for this edge-of-the-solar system mission. Hubble was used to discover four small moons orbiting Pluto and its binary companion object Charon, providing new targets to enhance the mission’s scientific return. And Hubble has provided the most sensitive search yet for potentially hazardous dust rings around the Pluto. Hubble also has made a detailed map of the dwarf planet's surface, which astronomers are using to plan New Horizon's close-up reconnaissance photos.

In addition to Pluto exploration, recent Hubble solar system observations have discovered a new satellite around Neptune, probed the magnetospheres of the gas-giant planets, found circumstantial evidence for oceans on Europa, and uncovered several bizarre cases of asteroids disintegrating before our eyes. Hubble has supported numerous NASA Mars missions by monitoring the Red Planet's seasonal atmospheric changes. Hubble has made complementary observations in support of the Dawn asteroid mission, and comet flybys. In July 1994, Hubble documented the never-before-seen string of comet collisions with Jupiter that resulted from the tidal breakup of comet Shoemaker-Levy 9.

"The planned search for a suitable target for New Horizons further demonstrates how Hubble is effectively being used to support humankind's initial reconnaissance of the solar system," said Mountain. "Likewise, it is also a preview of how the powerful capabilities of the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope will further bolster planetary science. We are excited by the potential of both observatories for ongoing solar system exploration and discovery."

Robert PearlmanNASA release
New Horizons Spies Charon Orbiting Pluto

Like explorers of old peering through a shipboard telescope for a faint glimpse of their destination, NASA's New Horizons spacecraft is taking a distant look at the Pluto system – in preparation for its historic encounter with the planet and its moons next summer.

"Filmed" with New Horizons' best onboard telescope – the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) – this movie covers Pluto and almost one full rotation of its largest moon, Charon. The 12 images that make up the movie were taken July 19-24, from a distance ranging from about 267 million to 262 million miles (429 million to 422 million kilometers). Charon is orbiting approximately 11,200 miles (about 18,000 kilometers) above Pluto's surface.

New Horizons snapped this image sequence as part of the mission's first optical navigation campaign. The mission team uses these "op nav" images – which focus on Pluto's position against a backdrop of stars – to fine-tune the distance that New Horizons will fly past Pluto and its moons. New Horizons is aiming for a precise close-approach point near Pluto in July 2015, so these and images to come – which help navigators and mission designers to get a better fix on Pluto's position – are critical to planning the encounter operations.

Pluto's four smaller satellites (Nix, Hydra, Styx and Kerberos) are too faint to be seen in these distant images, but will begin to appear in images taken next year as the spacecraft speeds closer to its target.

"The image sequence showing Charon revolving around Pluto set a record for close range imaging of Pluto—they were taken from 10 times closer to the planet than the Earth is," says New Horizons mission Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colo. "But we'll smash that record again and again, starting in January, as approach operations begin.

"We are really excited to see our target and its biggest satellite in motion from our own perch," he adds, "less than a year from the historic encounter ahead!"

As August begins, New Horizons is near the end of its final pre-Pluto annual systems checkout and instrument calibration before Pluto arrival. The New Horizons mission operations team at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, will put the spacecraft back into hibernation on August 29 – just four days after New Horizons crosses the orbit of Neptune on August 25.

That final "rest" lasts only until December 6, when New Horizons will stay wake for two years of Pluto encounter preparations, flyby operations, and data downlinks. Distant-encounter operations begin January 4, 2015.

Robert PearlmancollectSPACE
NASA's New Horizons probe crosses orbit of Neptune 25 years after Voyager 2

An interplanetary crossing on Monday (Aug. 25) evoked a crossover in space history, as NASA's New Horizons spacecraft traversed the orbit of Neptune on its way to Pluto and beyond, 25 years to the day after the Voyager 2 probe became the first to encounter the eighth planet from the sun.

Voyager 2's flyby of Neptune a quarter of a century ago marked the final destination on its "grand tour" of the outer planets, whereas Monday's milestone for New Horizons is only the start of its approach to its first and primary target. New Horizons will come closest to the dwarf planet Pluto on July 14, 2015.

"It's a cosmic coincidence that connects one of NASA's iconic past ... explorers with our next outer solar system explorer," said Jim Green, director of planetary science at NASA Headquarters. "Exactly 25 years ago at Neptune, Voyager 2 delivered our 'first' look at an unexplored planet. Now it will be New Horizons' turn to reveal the unexplored Pluto and its moons in stunning detail next summer on its way into the vast outer reaches of the solar system."

Robert PearlmanSpace Telescope Science Institute release
NASA's Hubble Telescope Finds Potential Kuiper Belt Targets for New Horizons Pluto Mission

Peering out to the dim, outer reaches of our solar system, NASA's Hubble Space Telescope has uncovered three Kuiper Belt objects (KBOs) the agency's New Horizons spacecraft could potentially visit after it flies by Pluto in July 2015.

The KBOs were detected through a dedicated Hubble observing program by a New Horizons search team that was awarded telescope time for this purpose.

"This has been a very challenging search, and it's great that in the end Hubble could accomplish a detection — one NASA mission helping another," said Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colorado, principal investigator of the New Horizons mission.

The Kuiper Belt is a vast rim of primordial debris encircling our solar system. KBOs belong to a unique class of solar system objects that has never been visited by spacecraft and which contain clues to the origin of our solar system.

The KBOs that Hubble found are each about 10 times larger than typical comets, but only about 1-2 percent of the size of Pluto. Unlike asteroids, KBOs have not been heated by the Sun, and are thought to represent a pristine, well preserved, deep-freeze sample of what the outer solar system was like following its birth 4.6 billion years ago. The KBOs found in the Hubble data are thought to be the building blocks of dwarf planets such as Pluto.

The New Horizons team started to look for suitable KBOs in 2011 using some of the largest ground-based telescopes on Earth. They found several dozen KBOs, but none were reachable within the fuel supply available aboard the New Horizons spacecraft.

"We started to get worried that we could not find anything suitable, even with Hubble, but in the end the space telescope came to the rescue," said New Horizons science team member John Spencer of SwRI. "There was a huge sigh of relief when we found suitable KBOs; we are 'over the moon' about this detection."

Following an initial proof of concept of the Hubble pilot observing program in June, the New Horizons team was awarded telescope time by the Space Telescope Science Institute for a wider survey in July. When the search was completed in early September, the team identified one KBO that is "definitely reachable" and two other potentially accessible KBOs that will require more tracking over several months to know whether they too are accessible by the New Horizons spacecraft.

This was a needle-in-a-haystack search for the New Horizons team because the elusive KBOs are extremely small, faint, and difficult to pick out against myriad background stars in the constellation Sagittarius, which is in the present direction of Pluto. The three KBOs identified are each a whopping 1 billion miles beyond Pluto. Two of the KBOs are estimated to be as large as 34 miles (55 kilometers) across, and the third is perhaps as small as 15 miles (25 kilometers).

The New Horizons spacecraft, launched in 2006 from Florida, is the first mission in NASA's New Frontiers Program. Once a NASA mission completes its prime mission, the agency conducts an extensive science and technical review to determine whether extended operations are warranted.

The New Horizons team expects to submit such a proposal to NASA in late 2016 for an extended mission to fly by one of the newly identified KBOs. Hurtling across the solar system, the New Horizons spacecraft would reach the distance of 4 billion miles from the Sun at its farthest point roughly three to four years after its July 2015 Pluto encounter. Accomplishing such a KBO flyby would substantially increase the science return from the New Horizons mission as laid out by the 2003 Planetary Science Decadal Survey.

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

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