Team plots a faster path to Pluto for robotic probe
Posted: February 22, 2002

New Horizons mission planners have developed a new strategy that could trim nearly a year off their original schedule to send a spacecraft to the solar system's outermost planet.

An artist's concept of the New Horizons spacecraft. The craft's miniature cameras, radio science experiment, ultraviolet and infrared spectrometers and space plasma experiments will characterize the global geology and geomorphology of Pluto and Charon, map their surface compositions and temperatures, and examine Pluto's atmosphere in detail. The spacecraft's most prominent design feature is an 8-foot dish antenna, through which it will communicate with Earth from as far as 4.7 billion miles away. Photo: Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute (JHUAPL/SwRI)
Now in preliminary development for NASA, New Horizons would be the first mission to explore Pluto and its moon, Charon, as well as the ancient Kuiper Belt of rocky, icy objects beyond the planets. If approved and funded later this year, New Horizons would launch in January 2006, swing around Jupiter for scientific studies and a gravity boost in 2007, and reach Pluto as early as 2015.

"As we continued to study the mission, and optimized our launch window, we realized that we could get the spacecraft to Pluto sooner," says New Horizons Mission Director Robert W. Farquhar, of The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., which manages the mission and will build and operate the spacecraft. "In our best estimates we can cover the 3 billion miles from Earth to Pluto faster than we once thought, while keeping all the mission's goals intact."

New Horizons project leaders say a faster trip benefits the mission in many ways.

"This a great opportunity to improve our scientific return while reducing mission risks and costs," says New Horizons Principal Investigator S. Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo. "We'll get a better look at Pluto itself, since more of the surface will be sunlit and the atmosphere will be another year away from freezing onto the planet's surface. We'll have more fuel for the journey into the Kuiper Belt after exploring Pluto-Charon, and the shorter cruise time reduces some of the costs associated with flight operations."

New Horizons will characterize the global geology and geomorphology of Pluto and Charon, map their surface compositions and temperatures, and study Pluto's complex atmosphere in detail. The spacecraft will then visit up to three Kuiper Belt objects beyond Pluto.

In addition to Southwest Research Institute and the Applied Physics Lab, the New Horizons team includes Stanford University, Palo Alto, Calif.; Ball Aerospace Corp., Boulder; the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.; and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. The science team also taps expertise from Lowell Observatory, Flagstaff, Ariz., NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif.; Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Mass.; Washington University in St. Louis; George Mason University, Fairfax, Va.; University of Colorado, Boulder; and The Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore.