New Horizons spacecraft became the first to visit one of the Kuiper belt objects, an area in the outer Solar System where frozen objects reside, and thus revolutionized our understanding of Pluto and its satellites, among many others.
The spacecraft comprises a central thrust tube and triangular structures on either side. It contains seven instruments and uses one radioisotope thermoelectric generator as its power source.
What is New Horizons?
NASA’s New Frontiers program designated New Horizons as its inaugural spacecraft to explore the Kuiper Belt region beyond Neptune that contains miniature planets and remains from early solar system formation. Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory designed and built New Horizons while serving as its manager, science payload operator, and data analyzer; principal investigator Alan Stern from Southwest Research Institute leads its operations and data analysis efforts.
This half-ton spacecraft contains many instruments designed to examine Pluto and its moons, the outer solar system, interplanetary dust and gas clouds and even interstellar debris. Controllers conserve energy by placing most of the time into hibernation mode; only occasionally awakening it for routine systems or navigation checks.
New Horizons made history when it flew past Pluto and its two moons in 2015 and returned astonishing photos. Two years later in February 2019, controllers directed New Horizons further into the Kuiper Belt, hoping it would encounter KBO 2014 MU69/Arrokoth (nicknamed Ultima Thule), located a billion miles further from Pluto than before.
How did New Horizons get to Pluto?
As New Horizons made its approach to Pluto and Charon, its suite of instruments began collecting data about their region. By studying both planets in detail and their surroundings – while meeting 30 science objectives simultaneously – New Horizons provided invaluable data about life on other worlds.
New Horizons must meet both temporal and spatial targets for best photos of Pluto: to do this it needed to float within a box 100 kilometers by 150 kilometers at precisely 7:50 a.m. on July 14, 2015.
On its journey to Pluto, New Horizons would pass through an area known as the Kuiper Belt which contains dangerous comets, asteroids, and dwarf planets – leading mission staff to fear one may hit and damage or destroy it – however Earth-based observations, “occultation” observations by New Horizons itself, and computer simulations all showed very low risks posed by collision with one of these objects and New Horizons was allowed to proceed along its original trajectory.
What will New Horizons do?
Scientists will gain their first close views ever of Pluto and its moons, as well as the Kuiper belt – an icy area left over from solar system formation – which holds fossilized objects left behind from Earth’s early days. Scientists have long dreamt of witnessing these objects with their own eyes!
New Horizons will also make observations to support NASA’s planetary science, solar system science and heliophysics missions. These include unique studies of distant Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) populations; otherwise unobtainable high-phase angle measurements which reveal more about outer heliosphere than could have been obtained through Voyager’s rotatable instrument platform; as well as new discoveries of various kinds.
Due to Earth and New Horizons being so far apart, the spacecraft was fitted with redundant Command and Data Handling systems. These use time-tagged rules based on component states to compare them against expected values for each system – this enables it to autonomously correct faults instead of just entering safe mode.
What will New Horizons tell us?
New Horizons will explore Pluto and its moons, searching for gases in their atmospheres and measuring solar wind, while exploring the Kuiper Belt which contains small bodies of rock and ice beyond Neptune’s orbit.
NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) began considering sending an unmanned mission to Pluto during Voyager 2’s tour of outer solar system in the 1960s.
New Horizons was launched on January 19, 2006 and received its initial gravity assist from Jupiter one year later. It took seven years to reach Pluto and another year to pass close by Arrokoth in the Kuiper belt.
Team members have begun transmitting data back from both Arrokoth and Pluto. Each packet of information sent back is processed by 200-foot wide radio dishes at NASA’s Deep Space Network before being unpacked into usable scientific information – this process usually takes 4.5 hours per transmission.