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 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.