New Horizons – Two Years and Counting

PlutoTwo years ago this past Saturday the New Horizons spacecraft was launched toward an eventual encounter with the planet Kuiper Belt object Pluto on July 14, 2015.  The spacecraft used a gravity assist from Jupiter last February to shave a couple years off its transit time.  New Horizons was the fastest spacecraft ever launched, and gained an additional 9,000 mph as Jupiter slingshot it toward Pluto.  It is now in coast mode for the next 7 years until the flyby of this enigma and its three known moons.

I’ve been searching for a good answer to the question “Why go to Pluto?”  Alan Stern, the mission’s principal investigator, says “Past experience in planet exploration has consistently proved the value of reconnaissance missions for revolutionizing our view” which doesn’t really address the why part of the question.  This was, however, a mission that gained the public’s imagination and public support was credited as one of the reasons the mission was funded.

Orbital mechanics have always fascinated me, and even though I understand the mathematics enough to understand how we can hit a moving target from 3 billion miles away, it boggles me that we can actual do it with confidence. 

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2 Responses to New Horizons – Two Years and Counting

  1. […] New Horizons – Two Years and Counting Pluto Two years ago this past Saturday the New Horizons spacecraft was launched toward an eventual encounter with the planet Kuiper Belt object Pluto on July 14, 2015. The spacecraft used a gravity assist from Jupiter last February to … […]

  2. Joe says:

    Hum! I think the “Why go there?” is answered by the classical “Because it’s there.” There’s another question – “Why now?”. That has much more to do with the fact that Pluto is outward bound at the moment, and will be for about another 100 years, more or less. Right now it has a whisp of an atmosphere that will freeze out sooner, rather than later, so we’d miss our chance to study it if we don’t go about now.
    Plus, we’re also at the stage that we can do this relatively cheaply.

    Interesting about the orbital mechanics. It’s not really so hard. Ever notice that Newton’s laws only work in the ideal situation? They never quiet work so exactly here on earth – too much friction going on. In space, it’s much easier to hit your target and to calculate exactly how to do that.

    What’s been hard is getting stuff to last and work correctly in space for a long time. And this is a long mission.

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