New Horizons Rocketed to Pluto on a Record-Breaking Orbit

spacecraft to pluto

New Horizons was launched into space one afternoon in 2006 on an unprecedented journey towards Pluto. Carrying an array of instruments with it, New Horizons broke records as it set course towards this distant planet.

Visible light cameras could count craters, map hills and valleys, scan for frosty methane lakes and observe how stars dim or brighten as their paths cross our craft’s (occultation). Furthermore, spectrometers could analyze this temporary atmosphere.

Orbital mechanics

Space satellites follow an elliptical path around their primary. The semi-major axis measures the distance between points of closest approach (periapsis and apoapsis); while its minor axis equals half. Orbital period and true anomaly measure how long one orbit takes to complete, and how far from center its argument of perigee deviates over long periods.

New Horizons made its first flyby of Pluto in 2015 and revealed an icy “heart” glacier, craters, mountains and an unexpectedly varied terrain. Additionally, Charon and Pluto’s four moons were observed as well. By 2019, New Horizons flew by another Kuiper belt object called Arrokoth and observed what is effectively a bi-lobed baby comet!

The International Space Station

The International Space Station (ISS) is a modular complex in orbit approximately 400 km (250 mi). It represents one of the world’s largest international cooperative projects for human spaceflight and involves scientists from 106 nations; astronauts and cosmonauts live aboard for extended periods.

In November 1998, Russia launched their Zarya (zar EE uh) control module into space and later that month the Space Shuttle Endeavour connected Unity node for assembly into ISS. As time progressed and more pieces joined together into an ever-growing structure.

New Horizons will carry 30 grams (1 oz) of Clyde Tombaugh’s ashes as a reminder of his discovery of Pluto, as well as a Florida state quarter to commemorate its Florida launch site. Hydrazine monopropellant propellant allows it to generate sufficient delta-v for both Jupiter flyby and direct flights directly towards Pluto.

The Tracking and Data Relay Satellites

New Horizons boasts a sophisticated communication system equipped with the most cutting-edge digital receiver technology. This cutting-edge system uses 66% less power than comparable systems on earlier NASA deep space missions.

New Horizons provides scientists with an instrument package to study Pluto, its moons, and the Kuiper belt region of our Solar System. This mission will give scientists valuable information about both Pluto’s formation as a planet as well as the transformation of our Solar System over time.

Ralph, MVIC, LORRI and REX are the main science instruments at Pluto. MVIC maps its surface both black-and-white and color images of its surface in stereo for better understanding topography; Ralph detects gas escaping Pluto’s atmosphere while searching for rings or additional satellites; LORRI takes high-resolution visible light pictures of both Pluto and its moons; while REX provides radar data.

The Space Shuttle

In the late 1970s, Alan Stern and others advocated strongly for NASA to send an exploratory mission to Pluto while upper management deliberated whether Voyager should explore Saturn’s moon Titan or Kuiper belt objects instead. New Horizons eventually got approval and took its journey.

Team members worked frantically to design, construct and test the probe while managing budget cuts and canned proposals that would have caused its cancellation.

Launched in January 2006, New Horizons made history in 2015 when it flew by Jupiter for a gravity assist maneuver and altered its path, saving propellant for its journey to Pluto over 9.5 years. By doing this, New Horizons explored all of Pluto’s small moons as well as Neptune trojan Arrakoth (in 2015) before discovering that Pluto likely has a rocky core, giant mountains of water ice, and possibly even an enormous nitrogen glacier covering an area covering one million square miles.

The Spacecraft to Pluto

The New Horizons probe, commonly referred to as ‘Half Moon’ due to the portion of Pluto it will fly past, is packed with cameras and instruments – including Clyde Tombaugh’s ashes as well as an instrument named after Venita Burney and an impressive dust counter weighing in at 1.9kg!

Early images reveal a mountain range comparable to that of Earth’s Rocky Mountains, suggesting geological activity on Pluto’s surface. New Horizons will also investigate small worlds orbiting it such as Styx and Nix as well as observing the Kuiper Belt beyond our planets; any object encountered could potentially destroy itself – thus the team developed contingency plans accordingly.

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