2011 turned out to be quite an exciting year for New Horizons, NASA’s Pluto-Kuiper Belt Mission. New Horizons was launched in early 2006 and is on its way to rendezvous with Pluto in July 2015 – the primary goal of the 9 ½ year journey. New Horizons already holds the distinction of being the fastest spacecraft ever launched, covering 20 times the distance between the sun and the Earth by March 2011 (over one million kilometers per day), but this past year held more distinctions for this special mission.
New Horizons reached a distinction early in 2011. The spacecraft was launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on January 19, 2006, following two previous attempts that were scrubbed due to weather-related issues. January 19, 2011 marked the completion of five successful years in space. On March 18, 2011, New Horizons reached the milestone of passing the orbit of Uranus (more than 1.8 billion miles from Earth) on its mission toward Pluto. The New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute expressed the feelings of the New Horizons Team during this milestone:
New Horizons is all about delayed gratification, and our 9 ½ year cruise to the Pluto system illustrates that. Crossing the orbit of Uranus is another milepost along our long journey to the very frontier of exploration.
Another milestone was reached in July 2011, and although it was not directly part of the New Horizons spacecraft, it created an extra element of interest in its mission to Pluto. In July, a Hubble Space Telescope observation team detected a new moon orbiting Pluto, the fourth moon to be discovered there. The team, led by Mark Showalter of the SETI Institute and Douglas Hamilton of the University of Maryland, College Park, found the moon by reviewing five sets of images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope over a two-month period. With an estimated diameter between 8 and 21 miles (13 to 34 kilometers) “P4” became the smallest moon discovered around Pluto, joining Nix, Hydra, and Charon.
On your way to Pluto? There’s an App for that! In October 2011, New Horizons earned itself a free app for the iPhone and iPad that allows users to follow along its journey to Pluto and beyond. Designed by programmers at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory and available at the iTunes App Store, New Horizons: A NASA Voyage to Pluto allows users to read the latest news and view pictures from the mission. Details are also provided about the spacecraft, instruments, and its mission. An added feature allows the user access to educational programs and activities, and they can stay informed with live reports from the New Horizons news center and Twitter feed. A “locator” is included in the app that allows the user to track the path of New Horizons as it heads toward Pluto, and includes a countdown clock to the second it will be passing the dwarf planet and its moons on July 14, 2015. NASA has also used this app as a way to connect users to the “Ice Hunters” program, which aims to find potential New Horizons flyby targets in the Kuiper Belt.
Perhaps, though, the most significant milestone for New Horizons in 2011 came on December 2, when it became closer to Pluto than any other spacecraft. This distinction was previously held by NASA’s Voyager 1, who earned the title in January 1986 by coming within 983 million miles (1.58 kilometers) of the dwarf planet, although Pluto was not within its mission path. New Horizons is on course and will continue to set proximity-to-Pluto records daily until its closest approach of approximately 7,767 miles (12,500 kilometers). It may be decades before another spacecraft will break this proximity record, and assuming New Horizons accomplishes its goal, the record will have to be set by an orbiter or lander. When New Horizons reaches its point of closest approach, its cameras will be able to distinguish features on the surface as small as a football field, according to NASA and APL press releases.
With so many milestones along its journey already, New Horizons is showing no signs of slowing down. New Horizons will cross the orbit of Neptune on August 25, 2014, exactly 25 years after Voyager 2 explored the giant planet. Following the exploration of Pluto in 2015, New Horizons will continue on to explore the distant Kuiper Belt, a region of the solar system filled with small planets and comets believed to have formed early in the solar system’s history.