New Horizons Pluto-Kuiper Belt mission

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Pluton Mission News

Its full mission name is The New Horizons Pluto-Kuiper Belt mission. It will help us learn more about the edge of our solar system, and by making the first visit of Pluto and and its neighbouring moon Charon, and then studying the icy world of the Kuiper belt systems.

An astronomical unit is the distance between Earth and the Sun, and in 1989, Pluto was as close to the Sun as it gets during its long year,less than 30 astronomical units. Plutos' year is equal to 248 earth years and it travels as far as 50 astronomical units (au) away from the sun during its orbit.

We know so little about Pluto and Charon because Pluto’s angular diameter is only a tenth of an arcsecond at best, which is around about the resolving limit of the Hubble Space Telescope and observatories with adaptive optics capabilities.

Pluto was first discovered by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930,and Charon was discovered by James Christy in 1978. Its diameter is roughly about 2,370 kilometers, around 2 thirds the size of our moon. Charon is about half the size of Pluto.

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The Planet

Pluto rotates every 6.387 days and has an orbital period of 249 years and is 5,913,520,000km from the sun with a diameter of 2,320km. It is usually the farthest planet from the sun of all the planets but because of the peculiarity of Pluto’s orbit, it creeps inside Neptune for about 20 years of it orbit. The next due date for this phenomenon is September 1999.

The 2 will not collide because Pluto reaches its maximum distance from the ecliptic as it approaches perihelion. This is so due to its 17-degree inclination that keeps it above or below Neptune’s orbit.

Pluto is the only planet to rotate synchronously with the orbit of its satellite, it is normally the other way around, this results means the 2 of them continually face each other through their orbits causing them to be tidally locked. Pluto’s rotational axis is tipped 122 degrees and unlike most planets it rotates with its poles almost in its orbital plane.

The History

Pluto was discovered in 1930 by Clyde W Tombaugh and remains the only planet not yet visited by a spacecraft (at least not from this planet) so little is known about it. The international Astronomical Union officially Pluto was officially labelled the ninth in 1930 and named after the Roman god of the underworld.

The work of the founder of the Lowell Observatory on Flagstaff Arizona, Percival Lowell is attributed to the discovery of the planet. He believed it could be detected using the effect it would have on Neptune’s orbit but failed to find it after several attempts. It wasn’t until the Lowell Observatory employed Tmbaugh who used a systematic approach to Lowell’s theory taking photographs on the plan of the solar system one to two weeks apart looking for anything that shifted against the b

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New Horizons

NASA plans to launch an interplanetary probe called New Horizons in 2006 headed for Pluto and then the Kuiper Belt. The probe is expected to pass the planet around 2015. The mission is to explore the planet and its moon, Charon, and then is expected to continue on into the Kuiper Belt of Objects beyond the orbits of Neptune and Pluto. The kuiper Belt of objects are a group of frozen rocks some as large as half the size of Pluto itself. It has been suggested that Pluto is not a planet but part of the Kuiper Belt.

The New horizon spacecraft is due to be launched in January 2006 on either an Atlas-5 or Delta-4 rocket and reach Jupiter in March 2007. There it would use the slingshot effect to gain a boost toward Pluto to arrive in 2015 before it’s journey into the Kuiper Belt of Objects. On its approach to the planet the New Horizon is expected to be able to detect any satellites of the planet as small as 0.62 miles in diameter.

The spacecraft will be built and run by project scientists at the John Hopkins University’s applied Physics Laboratory at Laurel Maryland and is part of NASA’s New frontiers program. The science team is made up of people from more than a dozen institutions, including Colorado, and Ball Aerospace, Stanford University, the Southwest Research Institute's (SwRI) Department of Space Studies at Boulder, NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

When NASA argued against sending a probe to the distant world, the planetary scientists across America said it was important to go now because Pluto is in a favourable position due to its orbital position so if they don’t go now its surface will become more frozen as it will move farther away on its long orbit around the Sun. Despite NASA’s objections, Congress granted the New Horizon project $110 million in NASA’s 2003 budget. Construction was schedule to begin in Summer 2004 and the entire project is expected to cost $300-$400 million.

In July 2003, the House of Representatives' Appropriations Subcommittee approved a fiscal year 2004 budget for "Science, Aeronautics and Exploration cutting hundreds of millions from major projects such as funding for the 2011 James Webb Space Telescope, the 2010 Space Interferometry Mission and the Earth Science Applications program. But by far the biggest cut was from the New Frontiers program taking $55 million from the $130 million that had been requested. Despite the White House acceptance of the New Horizons and the fact that Congress had pushed for it to the point where they added $105 million to NASA’s FY 2003 budget to initiate the grogram only a few months earlier, they $53 millions of the $55 million cut from the New Frontiers program came from the New Horizons program.

The new budget will have devastating effects on the program in many ways. First it would delay the planned launch to the point where it would even put the program’s launch back beyond its back up date in Feb 2007. This delay will cause the probe not to be able to make the gravity assist from Jupiter and that would add another 3 years to the ead (estimated arrival date) meaning the new date for arrival will be in 2019. The output of the program would be seriously affected as the planet moves further away and its south pole is cloaked in permanent darkness that wont be reversed for another 120 years and the additional cost would be an estimated $80 million

The four year delay means that more of the planet’s total surface area would be concealed at the time of the probe’s visit and the planet’s thin atmosphere is very likely to freeze as Pluto moves further away from its 1989 perihelion and wont be the same again until near the end of the 248 years it takes to revolve around the sun. The extremely cold gasses may also interfere with the probe’s attempt to use near-IR spectrometry to map the composition of the planet’s surface.

NASA has added a special instrument to the New Horizons program that was designed by students at the University of Colorado at Boulder. The device called a Dust Counter will detect dust grains produced by collisions between asteroids. It will be the first time students have been accredited with designing an instrument to travel on a NASA mission and the students, under supervision from the university faculty, will also be responsible for the distribution and archive date from the instrument and drive an education program to bring their experience to the classroom.

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