Pluto40 posts
8 Oct, 2015

Water and ice found

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Pluto haloNASA says that Pluto has traces of water and ice on its surface. Red-colored frozen surface water is confirmed by combining spectral infrared and visible light data taken by two of New Horizons’ image sensors. The agency also releases a picture of Pluto’s blue sky, which is caused by tiny, sunlight-scattering particles in the atmosphere. Those particles probably begin as molecular nitrogen (which Pluto is constantly emitting) and other trace gases.

28 Jul, 2015

NASA anticipates greater discoveries

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Speaking before the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, Stern says scientific information gleaned from the New Horizons mission to Pluto is “revolutionizing” what they know about the icy dwarf planet, predicting that even greater discoveries lay ahead.

With only 5% of data on the ground, we all feel we need to fasten our seat belts for the next 95%.

It will take 16 months for all the collected data from New Horizons to be transmitted to Earth. Scientists say the mission demonstrates this need for further planetary exploration.

Now is the time to accelerate, not curtail, the pace and scope of our nation’s solar system exploration program.

24 Jul, 2015

Pluto and Charon’s natural color

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 Pluto and its largest moon Charon are seen in their natural color in this spectacular image by composite of images from NASA's New Horizons spacecraft taken during its July 14, 2015 flyby. In this image, the north poles of both Pluto and Charon NASA releases this photo which shows Pluto’s reddish color and Charon’s gray tone. Scientists think Pluto’s red color is the result of particles created in its atmosphere, through methane’s interaction with UV light. The particles stick together, growing heavier, and eventually rain down on the surface. Observations show that Charon does not have much of an atmosphere.

For now, all that we can say is, it’s a much more rarefied atmosphere [than Pluto’s]. It may be that there’s a thin nitrogen layer in the atmosphere, or methane, or some other constituent. But it must be very tenuous compared to Pluto — again, emphasizing just how different these two objects are despite their close association in space.

Eclipses the sun

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Backlit by the sun, Pluto’s atmosphere rings its silhouette like a luminous halo in this image taken by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft around midnight EDT on July 15. This global portrait of the atmosphere was captured when the spacecraft was about 1.25 million miles (2 million kilometers) from Pluto and shows structures as small as 12 miles across. The image, delivered to Earth on July 23, is displayed with north at the top of the frame.NASA releases a photo of Pluto eclipsing the sun showing a haze in Pluto’s atmosphere which extends at least 160 km (100 miles) above the surface.

This is one of our first images of Pluto’s atmosphere. [It] stunned the encounter team. For 25 years, we’ve known that Pluto has an atmosphere. But it’s been known by numbers. This is our first picture. This is the first time we’ve really seen it. This was the image that almost brought tears to the eyes of the atmospheric scientists on our team.


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NASA releases a photo which suggests that glaciers are flowing on Pluto’s surface in the region of Sputnik Planum. Scientists believe the ice is made of nitrogen, carbon monoxide and methane.

To see evidence of recent geological activity is simply a dream come true. The appearance of this terrain, the utter lack of impact craters on Sputnik Planum, tells us that this is really a young unit.

Heart shape sharper image

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NASA releases a sharper image of Pluto showing that the left half of the Tombaugh Regio heart region is different than the right. The left half is more filled in. Scientists believe some process, possibly wind, is blowing material from the left half to the right half.

Our interpretation is that material in the right lobe — the source for that material — is coming from the western [or left] lobe.

21 Jul, 2015

Nix and Hydra

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Pluto's moon Nix (left), shown here in enhanced color as imaged by the New Horizons Ralph instrument, has a reddish spot that has attracted the interest of mission scientists. The data were obtained on the morning of July 14, 2015, and received on the ground on July 18. At the time the observations were taken New Horizons was about 102,000 miles (165,000 km) from Nix. The image shows features as small as approximately 2 miles (3 kilometers) across on Nix, which is estimated to be 26 miles (42 kilometers) long and 22 miles (36 kilometers) wide. Pluto's small, irregularly shaped moon Hydra (right) is revealed in this black and white image taken from New Horizons' LORRI instrument on July 14, 2015 from a distance of about 143,000 miles (231,000 kilometers). Features as small as 0.7 miles (1.2 kilometers) are visible on Hydra, which measures 34 miles (55 kilometers) in length.NASA releases photos of Pluto’s moons Nix and Hydra. Nix is about 42 km (26 miles) long and 36 km (22 miles) wide. Nix’s surface is a light gray with an area that is light red which scientists think might be a crater. Hydra is about 55 km (34 miles) long and 40 km (25 miles) wide and has at least two large craters.

Before last week, Hydra was just a faint point of light, so it’s a surreal experience to see it become an actual place, as we see its shape and spot recognizable features on its surface for the first time.

Discovers second mountain range

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A newly discovered mountain range lies near the southwestern margin of Pluto’s heart-shaped Tombaugh Regio (Tombaugh Region), situated between bright, icy plains and dark, heavily-cratered terrain. This image was acquired by New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) on July 14, 2015, from a distance of 48,000 miles (77,000 kilometers) and sent back to Earth on July 20. Feature as small as a half-mile (1 kilometer) across are visible. These frozen peaks are estimated to be one-half mile to one mile (1-1.5 kilometers) high, about the same height as the United States’ Appalachian Mountains. The Norgay Montes (Norgay Mountains) discovered by New Horizons on July 15 more closely approximate the height of the taller Rocky Mountains. NASA releases a photo showing another mountain range on the lower left edge of Pluto’s heart-shaped region. The peaks are about 1 to 1.5 km (0.5 to 1 mile) high, about the size of the Appalachians. The new range is just west of the region within Pluto’s heart called Sputnik Planum (Sputnik Plain) and some 110 km (68 miles) northwest of Norgay Montes. This newest image further illustrates the remarkably well-defined topography along the western edge of Tombaugh Regio.

There is a pronounced difference in texture between the younger, frozen plains to the east and the dark, heavily-cratered terrain to the west. There’s a complex interaction going on between the bright and the dark materials that we’re still trying to understand.

17 Jul, 2015

Flyover animation

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NASA releases a flyover animation over part of Tombaugh Regio, the heart-shaped area of Pluto, and the Norgay Montes mountains, which are named for Tenzing Norgay, the sherpa who accompanied Edmund Hillary on the first successful ascent of Mt. Everest. The animation is created from images taken by the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) on the New Horizons probe during the Pluto flyby on July 14, 2015. Using photographs taken from just 77,000 kilometers (48,000 miles) away from the surface, the resolution  is good enough that features as small as a kilometers across (0.5 miles) are visible.

Animated Flyover of Pluto’s Icy Mountain and Plains

Frozen plains

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Frozen Plains in the Heart of Pluto’s ‘Heart’ (annotated)NASA releases a close-up photo of an area in the center-left of the heart feature of a young craterless plain which they name Sputnik Planum. It has a broken surface of irregularly-shaped segments, roughly 20 km (12 miles) across, bordered by what appear to be shallow troughs, some of which have darker material within them, while others are traced by clumps of hills that appear to rise above the surrounding terrain. Elsewhere, the surface appears to be etched by fields of small pits that may have formed by sublimation.

This terrain is not easy to explain. The discovery of vast, craterless, very young plains on Pluto exceeds all pre-flyby expectations.

16 Jul, 2015

Charon mountain

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Pluto's moon Charon showing a tall mountain inside a deep depressionNASA shares a close-up photo of Pluto’s moon Charon showing a large mountain in a deep depression that is puzzling scientists.

The most intriguing feature is a large mountain sitting in a moat. This is a feature that has geologists stunned and stumped. It looks like someone just dropped a giant boulder on Charon.

15 Jul, 2015

Different ices

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The New Horizons team release a composite photo showing different methane ice accumulations over Pluto’s surface. The photo is compiled using RALPH’s 256 infrared wavelengths overlaying a LORRI basemap.

All I’m showing is the diversity of terrains. The ices do have distinct properties, different melting points.

Discovers ice mountains

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Ice Mountains of PlutoScientists share the first high-resolution images of Pluto’s surface taken by New Horizons, showing ice mountains 11,000 ft high. Pluto’s thin coating of methane, carbon monoxide and nitrogen ice on Pluto’s surface was not strong enough to form mountains — the scientist believe they are probably composed of Pluto’s water-ice bedrock

Mission scientists say the image show a terrain that had been resurfaced by some geological process – such as volcanism – within the last 100 million years.

We have not found a single impact crater on this image. This means it must be a very young surface.

This active geology needs some source of heat. Previously, such activity has only been seen on icy moons, where it can be explained by “tidal heating” caused by gravitational interactions with a large host planet.

You do not need tidal heating to power geological activity on icy worlds. That’s a really important discovery we just made this morning.

14 Jul, 2015

Closest approach

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After flying three billion miles from Earth, at 7:49 a.m. EDT, New Horizons makes its closest approach to Pluto at 7,700 miles from the surface. It flies past at 31,000 mph. The team receives confirmation from the spacecraft around 9:00 p.m. EDT that the flyby is a success.

Hey, people of the world! Are you paying attention? We have reached Pluto. We are exploring the hinterlands of the solar system. Rejoice!

Color photos

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Color image of Pluto and CharonNASA releases color images of Pluto and Charon. The heart shape on Pluto is different colors indicating different geologic, tectonic, or morphological origins. The big red spot near Charon’s north polar region are most likely nitrogen particles from Pluto. The sun burns off the particles on the areas facing the sun, but not the polar region which faces away from the sun for decades.

Some regions are relatively ancient, and other places are very young and currently undergoing geologic evolution.

13 Jul, 2015

Heart shape closeup

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Pluto's Heart-shaped featureNew Horizons takes a photo of Pluto from 768,000 km (476,000 miles) away showing a close-up view of the heart-shaped feature. The heart measures about 1,600 km (1,000 miles) across. The heart borders darker equatorial terrains, and the mottled terrain to its east (right) are complex. However, even at this resolution, much of the heart’s interior appears remarkably featureless—possibly a sign of ongoing geologic processes.

Wow! My prediction was that we would find something wonderful, and we did. This is proof that good things really do come in small packages.

Charon close up

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Pluto's moon CharonNew Horizons takes a photo of Charon from 466,000 km (289,000 miles) away. A series of cliffs and valleys stretch about 1,000 km (600 miles) from left to right, suggesting widespread fracturing of Charon’s crust. At upper right is a canyon about 7-9 km (4-6 miles) deep. The north polar region reveals a dark spot suggesting a thin deposit of material. The lack of craters suggests that the surface is still young being reshaped by geologic activity.

Pluto’s size measured

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NASA’s New Horizon mission scientists determine Pluto’s size to be 2,370 kilometers (1,473 miles) in diameter making it the largest known body beyond Neptune.

The size of Pluto has been debated since its discovery in 1930. We are excited to finally lay this question to rest.

They also determine Charon’s size to be 1208 km (751 miles) in diameter, Hydra is about at 45 km (30 miles) and Nix is about 35 km (20 miles).

11 Jul, 2015

Pluto far side

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New Horizons' last look at Pluto's Charon-facing hemisphere reveals intriguing geologic details that are of keen interest to mission scientists. This image, taken early the morning of July 11, 2015, shows newly-resolved linear features above the equatorial region that intersect, suggestive of polygonal shapes. This image was captured when the spacecraft was 2.5 million miles (4 million kilometers) from Pluto.At 4 million km (2.5 million miles), New Horizons takes this photo of Pluto’s far side showing four dark mysterious spots about 480 km (300 miles) across. The spots are connected to a dark belt that circles Pluto’s equatorial region. What continues to pique the interest of scientists is their similar size and even spacing.

It’s weird that they’re spaced so regularly. We can’t tell whether they’re plateaus or plains, or whether they’re brightness variations on a completely smooth surface.

This will be the best picture of Pluto’s far side, which always faces Charon, as the probe will be on the other side as it passes by Pluto.

9 Jul, 2015

Discovers heart-shaped region

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The probe discovers a heart-shaped region on Pluto:

Over the next week the spacecraft will be just 7,750 miles away from the dwarf planet. Team member:

The next time we see this part of Pluto at closest approach, a portion of this region will be imaged at about 500 times better resolution than we see today. It will be incredible.

First signs of Pluto’s geological features

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Tantalizing signs of geology on Pluto are revealed in this image from New Horizons taken on July 9, 2015 from 3.3 million miles (5.4 million kilometers) away. New Horizons takes this photo 5.4 million km (3.3 million miles) from Pluto which starts to show distinct geological features on the surface.

We’re close enough now that we’re just starting to see Pluto’s geology. Among the structures tentatively identified in this new image are what appear to be polygonal features; a complex band of terrain stretching east-northeast across the planet, approximately 1,000 miles long; and a complex region where bright terrains meet the dark terrains of the whale.

7 Jul, 2015

Pluto map

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NASA releases this map compiled from photos taken between June 27 and July 3 showing the following features along the equator: The long dark area on the left, named “the whale” measures 3,000 km (1,800 miles), above the whale’s tail is a doughnut shaped area measuring 350km (200 miles) across, to the right of the whale’s head is the brightest region, and further to the right are four mysterious dark spots.

3 Jul, 2015

Pluto is red-brown

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New Horizons’ RALPH instrument confirms that Pluto is reddish brown probably caused by hydrocarbon molecules that are formed when cosmic rays and solar ultraviolet light interact with methane in its atmosphere and on its surface.

Pluto’s reddish color has been known for decades, but New Horizons is now allowing us to correlate the color of different places on the surface with their geology and soon, with their compositions. This will make it possible to build sophisticated computer models to understand how Pluto has evolved to its current appearance.

1 Jul, 2015

Two faces of Pluto

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Pluto shows two remarkably different sides in these color images of the planet and its largest moon Charon taken by New Horizons on June 25 and June 27. The images were made from black-and-white images combined with lower-resolution color data. The left image shows the side of Pluto that will be seen at highest resolution when New Horizons makes its close approach on July 14. The hemisphere is dominated by a very dark region that extends along the equator. The right image is of the side that faces Charon; the most dramatic feature on this side of Pluto is a row of dark spots arranged along the equator. (The equator appears near the bottom of the images, as only about half of the planet is shown.)NASA releases photos that show Pluto’s two different faces. The right photo shows a series of four evenly spaced dark spots along the equator. The left photo shows the hemisphere the probe will view as it flies by.

It’s a real puzzle—we don’t know what the spots are, and we can’t wait to find out.

Path clear

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This illustration shows some of the final images used to determine that the coast is clear for New Horizons' flight through the Pluto system. These images show the difference between two sets of 48 combined 10-second exposures with New Horizons Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) camera, taken at 8:40 UTC and 10:25 UTC on June 26, 2015, from a range of 21.5 million kilometers (approximately 13 million miles) to Pluto. The known small moons, Nix, Hydra, Kerberos and Styx, are visible as adjacent bright and dark pairs of dots, due to their motion in the 105 minutes between the two image sets. The images have been extensively processed to remove the glare and "ghosts" (i.e., lens flare) from Pluto and Charon, and also to remove background stars, though many of the brighter stars are imperfectly removed and appear as irregular bright and dark blobs. These and other similar sets of images demonstrate that there are no previously unknown moons brighter than 15 times fainter than Styx (the faintest known moon) in the region outside of Charon's orbit, or brighter than five times fainter than Styx in the region between Charon's orbit and a few thousand kilometers above Pluto's surface.After a detailed search for dust clouds, rings, and other potential hazards, the New Horizons team decides the spacecraft will remain on its original path through the Pluto system instead of making a late course correction to detour around any hazards. Because the probe is traveling at 49,600 km/h (30,800 mph), a particle as small as a grain of rice could be lethal.

We’re breathing a collective sigh of relief knowing that the way appears to be clear. The science payoff will be richer as we gather data from the optimal flight path, as opposed to having to conduct observations from one of the back-up trajectories

28 Jun, 2015

Speeds up

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New Horizons fires its thrusters for 23 seconds speeding up about a half mile per hour in order to perfect its course through the Pluto system. Without the adjustment, the probe would have arrived 20 seconds late and 114 miles (184 kilometers) off-target from the spot where it will measure the properties of Pluto’s atmosphere. Those measurements depend on radio signals being sent from Earth to New Horizons at precise times as the spacecraft flies through the shadows of Pluto and Pluto’s largest moon, Charon. The probe is 16 million km (10 million miles) from the Pluto system and about 4.75 billion km (2.95 billion miles) from Earth.

This maneuver was perfectly performed by the spacecraft and its operations team. Now we’re set to fly right down the middle of the optimal approach corridor.

22 Jun, 2015

More terrain revealed

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Features on the Close Approach Hemisphere: These images, taken by New Horizons' Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI), show numerous large-scale features on Pluto's surface. The distance to Pluto ranges from 47 million kilometers (about 29 million miles) on June 5 to 31 million kilometers (19 million miles) on June 18. When various large, dark and bright regions appear near limbs, they give Pluto a distinct, but false, non-spherical appearance. Pluto is known to be almost perfectly spherical from previous data. These images are displayed at four times the native LORRI image size, and have been processed using a method called deconvolution, which sharpens the original images to enhance features on Pluto. NASA releases a series of photos of Pluto as the New Horizons probe approaches. The close approach hemisphere that the probe will pass by shows the greatest variation in surface features. The probe is 4.7 billion km (2.9 billion miles) from Earth and just 25 million km (16 million miles) from Pluto.

This system is just amazing. The science team is just ecstatic with what we see on Pluto’s close approach hemisphere: Every terrain type we see on the planet—including both the brightest and darkest surface areas —are represented there, it’s a wonderland!

11 Jun, 2015

Pluto’s different features

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These images, taken by New Horizons' Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI), show four different "faces" of Pluto as it rotates about its axis with a period of 6.4 days. All the images have been rotated to align Pluto's rotational axis with the vertical direction (up-down) on the figure, as depicted schematically in the upper left. From left to right, the images were taken when Pluto's central longitude was 17, 63, 130, and 243 degrees, respectively. The date of each image, the distance of the New Horizons spacecraft from Pluto, and the number of days until Pluto closest approach are all indicated in the figure. These images show dramatic variations in Pluto's surface features as it rotates. When a very large, dark region near Pluto's equator appears near the limb, it gives Pluto a distinctly, but false, non-spherical appearance. Pluto is known to be almost perfectly spherical from previous data. These images are displayed at four times the native LORRI image size, and have been processed using a method called deconvolution, which sharpens the original images to enhance features on Pluto. Deconvolution can occasionally introduce "false" details, so the finest details in these pictures will need to be confirmed by images taken from closer range in the next few weeks. All of the images are displayed using the same brightness scale. NASA releases a series of photos as the New Horizons probe approaches showing areas of intermediate brightness and also very bright and very dark surface features. The probe is 4.7 billion km (2.9 billion miles) from Earth and 39 million km (24 million miles) from Pluto.

Even though the latest images were made from more than 30 million miles away, they show an increasingly complex surface with clear evidence of discrete equatorial bright and dark regions—some that may also have variations in brightness. We can also see that every face of Pluto is different and that Pluto’s northern hemisphere displays substantial dark terrains, though both Pluto’s darkest and its brightest known terrain units are just south of, or on, its equator. Why this is so is an emerging puzzle.

28 Feb, 2007

Jupiter gravity boost

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At just before noon EST on Feb. 28, 2007, (from left) Science Co-investigator John Spencer, Program Scientist Denis Bogan, Project Scientist Hal Weaver, Principal Investigator Alan Stern and Mission Operations Manager Alice Bowman applaud upon confirming New Horizons' successful Jupiter flyby in the New Horizons Mission Operations Center at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md.New Horizons makes its closest approach to Jupiter at a distance of 2.3 million km (1.4 million miles) passing through an aim point just 500 miles across in order to get a gravity assist that will boost its speed toward Pluto. The probe gains almost 14,000 km/h (9,000 mph) accelerating to over 83,600 km/h (52,000 mph). It has traveled 800 million km (500 million miles).

We’re on our way to Pluto. The swingby was a success; the spacecraft is on course and performed just as we expected.

24 Sep, 2006

Sees Pluto

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A white arrow marks Pluto in this New Horizons Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) picture taken Sept. 24, 2006. Seen at a distance of about 4.2 billion kilometers (2.6 billion miles) from the spacecraft, Pluto is little more than a faint point of light among a dense field of stars. Mission scientists knew they had Pluto in their sights when LORRI detected an unresolved "point" in Pluto's predicted position, moving at the planet's expected motion across the constellation of Sagittarius near the plane of the Milky Way galaxy. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research InstituteThe Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) takes its first photos of Pluto from 4.2 billion km (2.6 billion miles) away. At this distance Pluto is just a faint point of light among the stars.

Finding Pluto in this dense star field really was like trying to find a needle in a haystack. LORRI passed this test with flying colors, because Pluto’s signal was clearly detected at 30 to 40 times the noise level in the images.

9 Mar, 2006

Third course correction

The probe fires its thrusters again for 76 seconds in order to perfect its path toward Jupiter. It is 51.7 million km (32.1 million miles) from Earth traveling at 37.5 km (23.3 miles) per second.

30 Jan, 2006

Second course correction

New Horizons fires its thrusters for twelve minutes to refine its trajectory toward Jupiter. It is 11.9 million km (7.4 million miles) from Earth.

Everything performed as planned. New Horizons has to fly through a precise aim point near Jupiter to get to Pluto on time and on target, and these maneuvers are putting us on the right path.

28 Jan, 2006

Course correction

New Horizons performs its first trajectory correction maneuver by firing its thrusters for four minutes 36 seconds to begin bringing it on a path to rendezvous with Jupiter where it will get a gravity assist to speed it on its way to Pluto.

19 Jan, 2006

Launch successful

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The Atlas V rocket with the New Horizons probe is launched successfully. After 44 minutes and 53 seconds it separates from its solid-fuel kick motor. Five minutes later mission control receives the first signals from the probe that all is well. The fastest probe ever launched is hurtling through space at 36,000 mph on its three billion journey to Pluto. NASA:

Today, NASA began an unprecedented journey of exploration to the ninth planet in the solar system. Right now, what we know about Pluto could be written on the back of a postage stamp. After this mission, we’ll be able to fill textbooks with new information.

13 Jun, 2005

Probe shipped

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John Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, which built the New Horizons probe, ships it to NASA Goddard Space Flight Center for its next round of pre-launch testing. APL Project manager:

Our testing program is off to a good start. We’ve shown that New Horizons is structurally ready for the ride on the launch vehicle, and now we’ll test it in the full range of conditions it would face on the voyage to Pluto, Pluto’s moon, Charon, and beyond.

20 Feb, 2003

Funding approved

FundraisingLaw approved

After a hard political battle, President Bush signs an omnibus bill which includes $110 million in initial funding for NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt System. The funding allows the team to proceed with the final design of the probe.

It’s like the old days. We are going to the frontier. We’re going back to the roots of the space program.

21 Feb, 2002

Faster arrival

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As the New Horizons team studies the mission and their launch window, they realize that they can get the probe to Pluto a year earlier than anticipated.

This [is] a great opportunity to improve our scientific return while reducing mission risks and costs. 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.

29 Nov, 2001

Mission approved

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NASA selects the New Horizons proposal from Southwest Research Institute for a mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt System. Director of SRI space studies:

We’ll be exploring frontier worlds near the edge of the planetary system. This mission is likely to rewrite textbooks regarding the origin of the planets, the nature of the outer solar system, and even the origin of primitive materials that may have played a role in the development of life.

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