Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Onward to Pluto

Thirteen months ago the New Horizons Spacecraft was launched from Earth. Its mission is to explore Pluto and other Kuiper Belt objects. Early this morning, the spacecraft passed close to Jupiter on its way to the outer reaches of the Solar System. The probe is returning fabulous photos of the planet as it passes by.

The main reason for passing by Jupiter is to give the probe a slingshot using the planet's gravity. Before reaching Jupiter, the probe was moving at about 12 miles every second (43,000 miles per hour); now it is moving at 14.5 miles every second (or 52,000 miles per hour). That extra speed will shave years off of the trip to Pluto.

Poor Pluto has had a rough year. It was demoted from being a planet to being a Kuiper Belt Object, which is a big blow to any celestial body's ego. Hopefully the knowledge that we are coming to visit will help its spirits.

What's next for the space probe? It won't reach Pluto until July of 2015, eight and a half years from now! Since the probe won't be passing any other planets, most of the science instruments will be powered down, and the spacecraft put in a sort of hibernation until it gets close to Pluto. Every so often, we'll check in on it, but mostly we want it to rest. That reduces the possibility that something will break in the harsh expanse of space. Bon Voyage, New Horizons!

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