Pluto mission launched
and World Science staff
A spacecraft designed to study distant Pluto has launched, after wind foiled two launch attempts earlier this week, NASA officials report.
A rocket placed the New Horizons craft onto the journey to the solar system’s edge after lifting off at 2 p.m. Eastern U.S. time from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
As the first spacecraft to visit Pluto and its moon Charon, New Horizons is designed to to unlock one of the solar system’s last, great planetary secrets. The craft is to cross solar system and conduct flyby studies of Pluto and Charon in 2015.
Instruments on the piano-sized probe will shed light on the bodies’ surface properties, geology, interior makeup and atmospheres, researchers say.
“New Horizons will study a unique world, and we can only imagine what we may learn,” said Mary Cleave, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.
Pluto is a type of planet known as an “ice dwarf,” commonly found in the Kuiper Belt region billions of miles from the sun.
The Kuiper belt, a ring of icy rocks outside the orbit of Neptune, is the source of some comets and an object of astronomers’ interest in its own right, as it’s thought to contain ancient leftovers of the planet formation process.
Increasing evidence also suggests similar belts may characterize many solar systems. Astronomers announced just this week that two nearby stars, HD 53143 and HD 139664, also have “Kuiper Belt”-like formations.
“Exploring Pluto and the Kuiper Belt is like conducting an archeological dig into the history of the outer solar system, a place where we can peek into the ancient era of planetary formation,” said Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute Department of Space Studies, Boulder, Colo., and principal investigator for New Horizons.
The compact piano-sized probe launched aboard an Atlas V expendable launch vehicle, followed by a boost from a kick-stage solid propellant motor. New Horizons is billed as the fastest spacecraft ever launched, to go as far as the Moon within nine hours and to pass Jupiter 13 months later.
The craft would use the gravity of colossal Jupiter as a “slingshot” toward Pluto, researchers said.
After reaching Pluto, it would conduct a five-month-long study possible only from the close-up vantage of a spacecraft. It would describe the geology and geological formations of Pluto and Charon, map their surface compositions and temperatures, analyze Pluto’s atmosphere and structure and study some newly discovered small moons of Pluto.
Pluto, some 40 times further from the Sun than Earth is, was the most distant planet known in our solar system until 2004. Since then, astronomers have discovered one or two further-away planets, depending on the precise definition of “planet.”
* * *
Send us a comment
on this story, or send
it to a friend