New Horizons is the first scientific investigation to obtain a close look at Pluto and its moons Charon, Nix, Hydra, Kerberos, and Styx (scientists discovered the last four moons after the spacecraft's launch in 2006). Scientists aim to find answers to basic questions about the surface properties, geology, interior makeup, and atmospheres on these bodies.
Some of the surprising findings from Pluto by New Horizons include:
Charon’s enormous equatorial extensional tectonic belt hints at the freezing of a former water ice ocean inside Charon in the distant past. Other evidence found by New Horizons indicates Pluto could well have an internal water-ice ocean today.
All of Pluto’s moons that can be age-dated by surface craters have the same, ancient age—adding weight to the theory that they formed together in a single collision between Pluto and another body in the Kuiper Belt long ago.
Charon’s dark, red polar cap is unprecedented in the solar system and may be the result of atmospheric gases that escaped Pluto and then accreted on Charon’s surface.
Pluto’s vast 1,000-kilometer-wide heart-shaped nitrogen glacier (informally called Sputnik Planum) that New Horizons discovered is the largest known glacier in the solar system.
Pluto shows evidence of vast changes in atmospheric pressure and, possibly, past presence of running or standing liquid volatiles on its surface – something only seen elsewhere on Earth, Mars and Saturn’s moon Titan in our solar system.
Incredible Space Travel of New Horizons to PLUTO
* Mission Extension recommended by Senior Review *
In July 14, 2015, after a space travel of more than nine years and three billion miles, New Horizons becoming the fastest spacecraft ever launched to reach its primary target, Pluto.
Sending in space by the Rocket’s Atlas V-551 in January 2006, the spacecraft of 478 kg at launch has completed the initial exploration of the classical solar system while opening the door to the mysterious dwarf planets and planetary building blocks in the Kuiper Belt.
The New Horizons project developed the Kuiper Belt Extended Mission (KEM) Integrated Master Schedule (IMS), in support of establishing the baseline by April 2017. KEM began October 1, 2016. The Student Dust Counter continues to collect unprecedented new data of an area of our Solar System little explore before.
New Horizons launched on January 19, 2006. It successfully encountered Pluto in July 2015, and completed downloading all the primary science observation of the Plutonian System on October 2016. The spacecraft will next venture deeper into the Kuiper Belt, and as part of a NASA-approved extended mission, study one of the icy mini-worlds in this region approximately two billion miles beyond Pluto’s orbit. The project has completed the maneuvers required to fly by Kuiper Belt Object 2014MU69 in January 2019.
To do so, New Horizons has used seven scientific instruments to study atmospheres, surfaces, interiors and the intriguing environments of Pluto and its distant neighbors. These ones are RALPH (Visible and infrared imager/spectrometer), ALICE (ultraviolet imaging spectrometer), REX (radio science experiment for studying atmospheres), LORRI (telescopic camera), SWAP (solar wind and plasma spectrometer), PEPSSI (energetic particle spectrometer) and the SDC (space dust counter).
New Horizons' electrical power comes from a single radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG) - the black cylinder extending from the spacecraft in this image.
The electrical power for the New Horizons mission is furnished by a single radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG), which transforms the heat from the natural radioactive decay of plutonium dioxide into electricity. The compact, rugged General Purpose Heat Source (GPHS)-RTG aboard New Horizons, carries approximately 11 kilograms of plutonium dioxide fuel.
By the time of the Pluto flyby in July 2015, the GPHS-RTG will be supplied 202 watts of power, down from 240 watts at launch. Onboard systems manage the spacecraft's power consumption (at 30 volts of direct current), so that the load does not exceed the output from the RTG, which slowly decreases by about four watts per year.
For its outer planet missions powered by RTGs, New Horizons does not carry a battery for storing power. The spacecraft's shunt regulator unit maintains a steady input from the RTG and dissipates power the spacecraft cannot use at a given time. New Horizons can ease the strain on its limited power source by cycling science instruments on and off during planetary encounters.
An RTG has no moving parts. The power system transforms the heat emitted by the plutonium dioxide fuel directly into electricity using solid-state thermoelectric converters, which generate electricity using the flow of heat from the large temperature difference between the hot nuclear fuel and the cold environment of space outside the generator.
The radioisotope power systems enable spacecraft to operate at significant distances from the Sun or in other locations where solar power systems would not be feasible or effective; for example, sunlight is 1,000 times fainter at Pluto and in the Kuiper Belt compared to its brightness in Earth orbit. Used in space for more than 50 years, such power systems are reliable and durable, well matched to the challenging needs of New Horizons on its long, four billion-mile journey from Earth.
Physical characteristics of Pluto
Pluto is the largest known body in the Kuiper Belt, offers an extensive nitrogen atmosphere, complex seasons, strangely distinct surface markings, an ice-rock interior that may harbor an ocean, and several small moons for study.
Pluto Global View. Credit: NASA/JPL
The smaller moons (named Nix, Hydra, Styx and Kerberos) were scientifically valuable bonuses, since New Horizons officially began in 2001 as a mission to just Pluto and Charon, years before the four smaller moons were even discovered.
Just 15 minutes after its closest approach to Pluto on July 14, 2015, NASA's New Horizons spacecraft looked back toward the sun and captured this near-sunset view of the rugged, icy mountains and flat ice plains extending to Pluto's horizon. The smooth expanse of the informally named Sputnik Planum (right) is flanked to the west (left) by rugged mountains up to 11,000 feet (3,500 meters) high, including the informally named Norgay Montes in the foreground and Hillary Montes on the skyline. The backlighting highlights more than a dozen layers of haze in Pluto's tenuous but distended atmosphere. The image was taken from a distance of 11,000 miles (18,000 kilometers) to Pluto; the scene is 230 miles (380 kilometers) across.
Reaching this third zone beyond the inner, rocky planets and outer gas giants, has been a space science priority for years. In early 2000s, NASA’s answer to the call of the National Academy of Sciences who ranked the exploration of the Kuiper Belt - and particularly Pluto and its largest moon, Charon - as a top priority planetary mission for the coming decade by the conception of New Horizons.
The New Horizons mission is one of the great explorations of our time; there's so much we don't know, not just about Pluto, but about similar worlds as well. Scientists won't be rewriting textbooks with this historic mission - they'll be writing them from scratch.
This is the most detailed view of Pluto’s terrain you’ll see for a very long time. This mosaic strip – extending across the hemisphere that faced the New Horizons spacecraft as it flew past Pluto on July 14, 2015 – now includes all of the highest-resolution images taken by the NASA probe. With a resolution of about 260 feet (80 meters) per pixel, the mosaic affords New Horizons scientists and the public the best opportunity to examine the fine details of the various types of terrain on Pluto, and determine the processes that formed and shaped them.
The width of the strip ranges from more than 55 miles (90 kilometers) at its northern end to about 45 miles (75 kilometers) at its southern point. The pictures in the mosaic were obtained by New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) approximately 9,850 miles (15,850 kilometers) from Pluto, shortly before New Horizons’ closest approach.
What would it be like to actually land on Pluto? This movie was made from more than 100 images taken by NASA's New Horizons spacecraft over six weeks of approach and close flyby in the summer of 2015. The video offers a trip down onto the surface of Pluto -- starting with a distant view of Pluto and its largest moon, Charon -- and leading up to an eventual ride in for a "landing" on the shoreline of Pluto's informally named Sputnik Planitia.
The mission has potential additional Kuiper Belt targets to possibly explore in the coming years. Eventually, the spacecraft's trajectory will carry it into the interstellar space.
Reference: New Horizons Launch Press Kit, NASA, January 2006.
New Horizons' Next Target Just Got a Lot More Interesting
Could the next flyby target for NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft actually be two targets?
New Horizons scientists look to answer that question as they sort through new data gathered on the distant Kuiper Belt object (KBO) 2014 MU69, which the spacecraft will fly past on Jan. 1, 2019. That flyby will be the most distant in the history of space exploration, a billion miles beyond Pluto.
One artist’s concept of Kuiper Belt object 2014 MU69, the next flyby target for NASA’s New Horizons mission. This binary concept is based on telescope observations made at Patagonia, Argentina on July 17, 2017 when MU69 passed in front of a star. New Horizons theorize that it could be a single body with a large chunk taken out of it, or two bodies that are close together or even touching. Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI/Alex Parker
The ancient KBO, which is more than four billion miles (6.5 billion kilometers) from Earth, passed in front of a star on July 17, 2017. A handful of telescopes deployed by the New Horizons team in a remote part of Patagonia, Argentina were in the right place at the right time to catch its fleeting shadow — an event known as an occultation – and were able to capture important data to help mission flyby planners better determine the spacecraft trajectory and understand the size, shape, orbit and environment around MU69.
* Planetary Mission Senior Review (PMSR) recommended the pursuit of that mission as well as the final decision will be subject to the availability of appropriated funds and the outcome of the annual budget process.*
MARS ATMOSPHERIC AND VOLATILE EVOLUTION
Long ago, Mars once had a denser atmosphere that supported liquid water on the surface. At that time, Mars might have had environmental conditions to support microbial life, as the long-term presence of water is necessary to life as we know it. However, as part of dramatic climate change, most of the Martian atmosphere was lost to space long ago. Features such as dry channels and minerals that typically form in water remain to provide a record of Mars' watery past, but the thin Martian atmosphere no longer allows water to be stable at the surface.
Launched November 18, 2013 and entered in Mars orbit Insertion in September 21, 2014, the goals of the mission is to give insight into the history of Mars' atmosphere and climate, liquid water and planetary habitability by determining how volatiles from the Martian atmosphere have escaped into space over time.
On June 17, MAVEN have celebrating 1,000 Earth days in orbit around the Red Planet. Since its launch in November 2013 and its orbit insertion in September 2014, the spacecraft explore the upper atmosphere of Mars. MAVEN is bringing insight to how the sun stripped the planet of most of its atmosphere, turning a planet once possibly habitable to microbial life into a barren desert world.
During its 1,000 days in orbit, MAVEN has made a multitude of exciting discoveries. Here is a countdown of the top 10 discoveries from the mission:
An Atlas V rocket lifts off at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's Space Launch Complex 41.The mission is to send the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution, or MAVEN, spacecraft on a 10-month journey to explore the Red Planet's climate history. Credit: NASA Kennedy. Published on 18 Nov 2013.