Spacecraft Sent to Pluto

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While Stern displays a National Geographic article from 1970 that foretold Voyager 2’s grand tour through our solar system’s planets, unfortunately its journey past Saturn did not allow it to visit Pluto.

NASA’s New Horizons Spacecraft

New Horizons set off on January 19, 2006 to explore Pluto and the newly discovered Kuiper Belt of our solar system. A year later, it made an orbital pass by Jupiter for gravity assistance before beginning its nine-and-a-half year trek toward Pluto’s orbit.

In July 2015, scientists received some of the clearest, best photos ever of Pluto ever taken by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft. These pictures reveal an surprisingly youthful surface complete with mountains reshaped recently by gravity that might indicate significant recent change on Pluto’s surface.

New Horizons’ instruments unlocked valuable insight into Pluto’s past, such as a layer of frozen asphalt. Furthermore, New Horizons revealed how Pluto’s atmosphere has been changing over time – something scientists are hopeful to gain more knowledge of. They plan to send another spacecraft orbiting around Pluto so as to monitor these processes more closely.

The New Horizons Mission

New Horizons was launched into space on January 19, 2006 and took nine years to reach Pluto after using Jupiter’s gravity as a guide, along with various thruster burns, thruster modifications, and Jupiter gravity as a slingshot to reach its destination. Once at Pluto, New Horizons only had nine minutes to acquire quality images of its moons.

Controllers kept New Horizons dormant until its flyby had concluded, only communicating occasionally to maintain its course and ensure its successful journey home afterward. After its historic voyage was complete, scientists cheered when New Horizons phoned home with all of its collected information.

Now, the team is planning for another encounter in 2021 with Kuiper Belt object 2014 MU69 (dubbed Ultima Thule by mission team members), though much depends on whether its next target coincides with current trajectory and can reach it by then – something scientists won’t let stop them as they have an excellent “fighting chance” at reaching another KBO before the 20s, according to Stern.

The Spacecraft’s Mission

Pluto lies at the outer boundary of our solar system in what’s known as the Kuiper belt, an area filled with comets, asteroids and smaller bodies of rock that could hit New Horizons during its journey toward Pluto and damage or destroy it. To prevent this from happening, controllers opted to keep New Horizons dormant for most of its trip before awakening it for navigation or system checks periodically throughout.

New Horizons captured stunning images and scientific information of Pluto and Charon during its flyby, providing scientists with plenty of scientific insights. Scientists determined that Pluto’s surface was geologically active, while Charon displayed evidence of ice volcanoes, mountains and valleys.

New Horizons revealed that Pluto was covered with polygonal dunes and its small satellites — Nix, Hydra and Styx — had rapid rotation rates. These findings stunned scientists, leading them to reconsider what constitutes a planet; New Horizons proved Pluto is not just another “failed” planet but rather an intelligent dwarf world!

The Mission’s Results

New Horizons completed our initial exploration of the classical solar system with its remarkable 2015 flyby of Pluto and its moons, marking an unforgettable event that brought closure to this part of our mission’s first phase. “This momentous occasion marks an exceptionally memorable feat for New Horizons’ Principal Investigator Alan Stern.”

Stern has long championed space exploration. Beginning his campaign for a Pluto mission in 1988, he eventually convinced NASA to embark on New Horizons instead.

New Horizons’ two scientific instruments, PEPSSI and LORRI, gathered a staggering amount of data. PEPSSI uses an ancient time-flight particle detector: particles hit foil then travel toward another foil before hitting solid-state sensors that clock their collisions to measure particle energy.

LORRI captured high-resolution color images of Plutonian surfaces using high-resolution images taken with LORRI, searching for features such as these penitentes (also called ice-pillars) and atmospheric layers such as this blue haze which may be photochemical smog. Both instruments provided crucial insights into Pluto’s geological history as well as revealing first glimpses into its complex atmosphere.

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