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> Pluto-bound Spacecraft Gets a Boost From Jupiter

FEB. 2007

New Horizons:
A Pluto-bound Spacecraft Gets a Boost
From Jupiter

Artists conception of the New Horizons spacecraft.
ENLARGE

New Horizons in flight: Artist's conception

Far across our solar system lies Pluto, a cold, icy world that has never been explored by any spacecraft. Now, a piano-sized satellite named New Horizons is speeding to Pluto.

The unmanned spacecraft has a limited supply of fuel to help it stay on course to Pluto. Otherwise, it is coasting through space. To get to Pluto even faster, the spacecraft swung by Jupiter on Feb. 27 to get a boost from the planet’s powerful gravity, like a rock being released from a slingshot.

The energy kick from our solar system’s most massive planet will increase the spacecraft’s speed by roughly 9,000 miles an hour. The increased speed means the space probe will be cruising at over 50,000 miles an hour after passing near Jupiter.

Timeline of New Horizons' journey

Timeline of New Horizon's journey.
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At that speed, astronauts would arrive at the Moon in just five hours, the typical time it takes a commercial jet to travel across the U.S. But it will take New Horizons another eight years to reach Pluto. Launched in January 2006, New Horizons will arrive at Pluto in 2015.

The vast frontier

Pluto is located on the outskirts of our solar system, where a vast wilderness of icy objects called the Kuiper Belt resides. No other spacecraft has explored this region. Kuiper Belt objects are thought to be leftover material from the creation of our solar system.

New Horizons will explore Pluto, its three moons, and, if an extended mission phase is approved by NASA, the icy worlds in the Kuiper Belt. These frozen bodies have been largely untouched since the birth of our solar system billions of years ago. They therefore could reveal valuable information about the origin and evolution of our solar system planets.

HST map of Pluto.
ENLARGE

1996: Hubble's 'maps' of Pluto

The Hubble Space Telescope has played a supporting role in the New Horizons mission. So far, the telescope has taken the best views of the faraway object. Hubble has mapped Pluto’s icy surface and has spotted two new moons. Scientists have used the Hubble images of Pluto to help plan the New Horizons mission.

A cold, cold world

Pluto is so far from the Sun that its average temperature is a frigid minus 387 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 233 degrees Celsius). Anyone traveling to Pluto would probably find an icy, frosty, dimly lit landscape, perhaps similar to the arctic regions on our planet. The Sun would be a bright point in the sky. Daytime on the distant planet would be much darker than a cloudy, stormy day here at home. But Pluto's sky would be strikingly clear, and in addition to the Sun, thousands of stars would be visible, even in daytime.

A tourist’s snapshots of Jupiter
and its moons

Ganymede
ENLARGE

Ganymede:
In exquisite detail

The New Horizons spacecraft is getting more than a gravity boost from Jupiter. Like any good tourist, the spacecraft is snapping a few pictures of the planet and four of its largest moons, including Io and Europa. Jupiter has turbulent air currents in its atmosphere that produce storms as large as Earth. These storms, such as the Great Red Spot, can last for hundreds of years.

Io
ENLARGE

Eruption on Io:
Caught in action

Io has more active volcanoes than any solar system body. The volcanoes spew glowing dust and gas into space. Past images of Europa's surface strongly resemble pictures of sea ice on Earth. Beneath Europa’s icy surface could be an ocean of liquid water more plentiful than on Earth.

On to Pluto

New Horizons is the seventh spacecraft to visit Jupiter. Pluto, however, is waiting for its first visiting spacecraft. In 2015, New Horizons will arrive there.

 

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