Printable Version

Destination: Pluto

New Horizons spacecraft begins an historic, 10-year voyage to the Ice Planet

On a summer day in 2015, instruments aboard the New Horizons spacecraft, led by SwRI, will gather data and send signals toward Earth that will end forever Pluto’s status as the last unexplored planet in our solar system.

With a suite of sophisticated scientific instruments tucked into a payload the size of a grand piano, New Horizons will examine for the first time the geology, surface composition and atmospheric structure of Pluto as well as its largest moon Charon and two smaller moons, and possibly other objects in the Kuiper Belt beyond Neptune. Pluto is far too distant for detailed observations, either from Earth or by the Hubble Space Telescope.

The New Horizons mission was sent on its 9.5-year journey on January 19 atop an Atlas V rocket as the first mission in NASA’s New Frontiers Program, a class of $700-million, principal investigator-led projects. New Horizons also is the first mission to visit a double planet, the first visit to an ice dwarf planet and the first planetary mission to carry a student-built instrument. Significantly, it is the first planetary mission led by SwRI, and the first mission to the outer planets to be led by a principal investigator.

It is also the fastest spacecraft ever launched, reaching a top speed greater than 9.8 miles per second. To illustrate the effect of this speed, while the manned Apollo missions took three days to reach the Moon, New Horizons crossed the lunar orbital path just nine hours after lift-off from Cape Canaveral, Florida. The spacecraft will fly past Pluto at better than 31,000 miles an hour, thanks to a gravitational boost from a swing past Jupiter in March, 2007.

Dr. Alan Stern, executive director of SwRI’s Space Science and Engineering Division, is principal investigator of the mission. SwRI has responsibility for managing the New Horizons mission, managed the development — and now the flight operations — of the science instruments and also manages the science investigations and science team. The spacecraft’s builder, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, will manage spacecraft operations for the NASA Science Mission Directorate.

Dr. William Gibson, assistant vice president of the Space Science and Engineering Division, led the development of spacecraft instruments for the mission. In all, more than 100 SwRI employees, representing four of the Institute’s 11 technical divisions, have worked on New Horizons.

“This is the Everest of planetary exploration,” Stern said at a media briefing in Florida prior to launch. “When we get to Pluto, we’ll be expecting the unexpected.”

The 1,050-pound spacecraft’s instrument payload comprises the most capable suite of instruments ever launched on an initial reconnaissance mission to an unexplored planet. Three years before New Horizons reaches the Pluto system, the science team will begin searching for and then targeting potential Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs) for exploration following the science mission at Pluto and Charon.

The SwRI-built instruments are Alice, an ultraviolet imaging spectrometer that will probe the atmospheric composition and structure of Pluto; and SWAP, or Solar Wind Around Pluto, which will measure charged particles from the solar wind near Pluto to determine whether it has a magnetosphere and how fast its atmosphere is escaping. SwRI also contributed to Ralph, a visible and infrared camera that will obtain high-resolution color maps and surface composition maps of the surfaces of Pluto and Charon.

Other instruments aboard New Horizons are LORRI, or Long Range Reconnaissance Imager, which will image Pluto’s surface at baseball-diamond sized resolution, resolving features as small as 50 yards across; PEPSSI, or Pluto Energetic Particle Spectrometer Science Investigation, which will search for neutral atoms that escape the planet’s atmosphere and become charged by their interaction with the solar wind; and SDC, or Student Dust Counter, which will count and measure the masses of dust particles along the spacecraft’s entire trajectory. REX, for Radio Science Experiment, containing sophisticated electronics integrated with the spacecraft’s radio telecommunications system, will study Pluto’s atmospheric structure and surface thermal properties, and make measurements of the mass of Pluto, Charon and other KBOs.

Published in the Spring 2006 issue of Technology Today®, published by Southwest Research Institute. For more information, contact Joe Fohn.

Spring 2006 Technology Today
SwRI Publications SwRI Home