U.S. planetary spacecraft, New Horizons, is now less than 25 million miles from the farthest planet, Pluto, in our known planetary system. This spacecraft was launched on January 19, 2006 and will encounter Pluto on its first encounter on July 14, 2015, that is only a few weeks from now.
This spacecraft will have travelled 4.67 BILLION miles once is reaches little known Pluto. Pluto was discovered in 1930 by astronomer Clyde Tombaugh. Aboard the spacecraft is approximately one ounce of Tombaugh’s ashes, he passed away in 1997.
When the spacecraft arrives on scene it will map the surfaces of both Pluto and it’s primary moon, Charon. There are five known moons circling around each other in that planetary dance. New Horizons spacecraft will also take surface temperatures and send back stunning photos, resolution to several miles. Till now, only blurry images have been taken of Pluto.
The radio latency time, or time it will take to transmit those photos and that data back to Earth, is approximately 4.5 hours. When the spacecraft does arrive on July 14th pictures and data will not be immediately transmitted “live.” The images will be stored in four redundant computers for transmission in chunks of downloads from 45-90 days back to Earth. Pictured below is a view of the transmit-receive antenna when the spacecraft was being assembled.
The spacecraft is travelling at an incredible 36,373 mph or 58,536 km/h. When it flew by Jupiter on February 28, 2007 that fly by gave it an additional speed boost which also shortened travel time to distant Pluto. The mission is being controlled from the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland.
This mission is truly historic for many reasons such as the speed at which the spacecraft is travelling and the first up-close encounter attempted by a human designed-built spacecraft. The New Horizons spacecraft has been described as being the size and approximate shape of a grand piano. It is nuclear powered and is full blanketed, including the antenna dish, in thermal protection. A series of moveable louvers was designed into the spacecraft body to control spiking internal heat. For me, what is truly amazing is that the spacecraft, so far away from human controllers, is fully autonomous. When radio travel time is more than 4.5 hours one way, we don’t have the type of duplex communication we are used to when we talk on the phone. Can you imagine asking someone you are talking to on the phone a question and having to wait four and a half hours for a response?
There are two great websites where you can follow this mission:
I really don’t know at this time what both of these sites will be presenting on the date of encounter, July 14, 2015, but you may want to check them out on that day. I would also suspect that the space interest website http://www.space.com will also have a special presentation on that day.
I will continue to keep you informed about any other upcoming space exploration activity in the future. You might not always see news postings early enough to follow these exciting exploration adventures, so I want to keep you in the loop. Bye for now from Northern Arizona.