New Horizons Spacecraft Reaches Pluto For First Close-Up Images of the Distant World

Stern and his team struggled for years to launch their mission, facing an intense race against time: only four years were available for designing, launching and reaching Jupiter for gravity assistance.

New Horizons would likely make its first encounter with Pluto and Charon during its trek through the Kuiper Belt – an outer region of our solar system full of comets and asteroids that could damage New Horizons probe.

What is a spacecraft?

Spacecraft are vehicles designed for travel in space. Propelled by rocket engines that use gas and plasma as propellant, they travel forward under their own power.

Once a spacecraft reaches its destination, it can collect data about the environment around it and transmit this information back to Earth using radio transmitter and antenna.

New Horizons, humanity’s sole robotic representative of the Kuiper Belt, continues its explorations in that remote region of distant objects by gathering data. At present it’s heading towards Pluto where it will encounter a small bi-lobed comet named Arrokoth and may collect samples as it does so.

On its journey to Pluto, New Horizons used rockets and stolen energy from Jupiter as part of its energy transfer plan in order to slow down and enter orbit. To accelerate, New Horizons took advantage of gravity assistance from Jupiter to accelerate further along its journey.

How is a spacecraft sent to pluto?

After years of hard work, New Horizons reached Pluto on July 2015. This flyby gave us our first close-up images of this distant world and its moons, revolutionizing our understanding of this distant planet.

Scientists were taken by surprise when they encountered various discoveries on Pluto, such as vast plains of nitrogen ice to possible ice volcanoes and tall “spikes” of methane snow that resemble penitentes on Earth. Furthermore, Pluto’s small satellites rotate at differing rates while its atmosphere has numerous well-organized haze layers that cover much of its surface area.

Engineers utilized hibernation mode on New Horizons during most of its journey to Pluto in order to conserve energy and limit wear-and-tear on its systems, although engineers did awaken it periodically for navigation and systems checks before and after encounter.

Why is a spacecraft sent to pluto?

After the success of Voyager spacecraft, planetary scientists turned their sights towards Pluto as a target for exploration. There were initial proposals for an interplanetary probe that would fly by Pluto and other objects in Kuiper belt on its journey towards Sun; this idea was eventually dropped.

The Planetary Society provided strong support for many Pluto missions that never saw fruition; eventually in 2015 the New Horizons spacecraft flew by Pluto and revealed a world closer than anticipated.

Though it is too early to predict all of their discoveries, the team already know that Pluto is geologically active with far fewer craters than expected and large mountain ranges and canyons – some larger than Earth’s Grand Canyon – than expected. Many mysteries still remain such as why Pluto has such little atmosphere and whether there ever were running or standing water-ice oceans; an orbiter may one day provide answers based on results of future decadal surveys.

What is a spacecraft sent to pluto?

Following Voyager, planetary scientists wanted a faster and more direct route to Pluto for further study; New Horizons was launched as part of this effort.

JPL engineer Mike Goldin presented NASA administrator Dan Goldin with the mission concept, complete with a stamp depicting Pluto’s unexplored frontier, and accepted funding the mission dubbed New Horizons.

The New Horizons spacecraft, launched in 2006 and arriving at Pluto in 2015, captured astonishing images of its complex world dominated by frozen mountains and seas covered with methane ice crystals, along with images of Pluto’s frozen moons and red-hued Charon companion.

New Horizons used a flyby of Saturn as an “extra boost” towards Pluto, then performed a 93-second engine burn to accelerate and refine its approach trajectory. Once in orbit around Pluto, New Horizons will make two years’ worth of visits exploring each small moon at least six times, along with exploring both equatorial and polar regions as well as sampling its wispy atmosphere for evidence of organic molecules before moving onward to Kuiper Belt object Arrokoth (2014 MU69) before leaving our solar system behind.

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