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Here we go, Pluto!

Nasa readies to launch a probe for Pluto, which will reach there in a decade's time.

21st December 2005

I will be a decade older when the Nasa space probe finally reaches Pluto. But I don't mind. I will still sit up to watch the news.

American space agency NASA is readying to launch a spacecraft to Pluto, the farthest space probe ever launched. Till now, Man's space voyages have been till Mars at the max. This one pushes the limits.

The launch date will be between January 17 and February 14 next year. The launch window has been so set that the spacecraft, titled New Horizons, will fly past Jupiter. Nasa said in a press release that flying past Jupiter gives extra boost for New Horizons, which will reduce total flying time by five years.

According to schedule, New Horizons will take ten years to reach the Pluto system. It will study Pluto, its moon Charon and the Kuiper Belt where Pluto is located.

The piano-sized Pluto probe, weighing barely 1000 pounds, will be launched aboard an Atlas V expendable launch vehicle to be boosted in the second stage by a solid propellant motor. It will reach the Moon's orbit in just nine hours and pass Jupiter 13 months later. This will be the least time ever taken by any spacecraft to cross such distances. Once the course to Pluto is set, mission managers on Earth will turn off the spacecraft's power systems, except the bare minimum ones. 

Thereafter, New Horizons goes to electronic "sleep", and will send just one electronic beacon (signal) to Mission Control every week, indicating the health of the craft. Once a year, Mission managers will monitor the spacecraft and make any course correction to New Horizons if required.

Unlike other planets on the solar system, Pluto is often called the "ice dwarf" and its contents are still a mystery. Pluto does not fall in the usual two categories of planets which are either swirling mass of gases or rocks like earth. Scientists believe that the voyage to Pluto is more like an archaeological dig into the history of the Solar System.

According to Mary Cleave, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, "New Horizons will study a unique world, and we can only imagine what we may learn. This is a prime example of scientific missions that complement the Vision for Space Exploration." 

Among the highest priorities of the National Academy of Sciences are the exploration of Pluto-Charon and the Kuiper Belt. 

New Horizons was designed and built at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. The New Horizons science is loaded with imaging infrared and ultraviolet spectrometers, a long-range telescopic camera, a multi-color camera, two particle spectrometers, a radio science experiment and a space-dust detector. The dust counter was designed and built by students at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

The whole of New Horizons draws power from a single radioisotope
thermoelectric generator, which will operate on less power than a pair of 100-watt household light bulbs.

Once it reaches the Pluto system, New Horizons will conduct a five-month-long study which can be conducted only from the close-up vantage of a spacecraft. Besides Pluto and Charon, New Horizons will also study the small moons which were recently spotted in the Pluto system.

The countdown to Pluto begins!



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