The Epic ‘New Horizons’ Mission

Artist's rendering of New Horizons Pic courtesy: John Hopkins University

Artist’s rendering of New Horizons
Pic courtesy: John Hopkins University

Scientists at NASA’s New Horizons control center cheered & celebrated the spacecraft’s flyby of Pluto, after a journey that has lasted almost a decade. As the projects of planetary science are said to be slashed, giving way to human space exploration & earth science, ‘New Horizons’ achievement would really bring fresh energy to push forward various missions to explore the outer planets of our solar system. It’s been twenty six years since a spacecraft has flown past a new world. In 1989, Voyager flew past Neptune.

The mission would also answer some basic questions about the least talked icy planet in our solar system, whose status in 2006 was downgraded to that of a ‘dwarf planet’. Pluto was discovered by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930. He was born in 1906 to an Illinois farm family. His interest in stargazing was kindled by his uncle (who lent Clyde his first telescope) and father. The self-taught astronomer in the late 1920’s joined as junior astronomer in the much revered Lowell Observatory. As modern astronomers learned a lot about Kuiper belt (the asteroid belt sits right on the edge of our solar system and is estimated to be 20 times wider than the asteroid belt that separates Mars and Jupiter), they declared Pluto more like the objects in the belt than the other eight planets.

Members of the New Horizons science team cheering 'Pluto Flyby'  Photo Credit: NASA

Members of the New Horizons science team cheering ‘Pluto Flyby’
Photo Credit: NASA

When New Horizons was launched in January 2006, Pluto was still considered as a planet. Eight months after the launch of the spacecraft, the Pluto’s planet status was stripped. Images taken from Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI), aboard New Horizons have found Pluto to be much larger than the prior estimates. The planet is 2,370 kms in diameter and the US space agency has confirmed that Pluto is the largest solar system object beyond the orbit of Neptune. Pluto also seems to contain more ice beneath its surface and less rock – the opposite is what the mission scientists anticipated.

Cambridge Cosmologist, Stephen Hawking congratulated the scientists involved in New Horizons in his recorded message: “Billions of miles from Earth this little robotic spacecraft will show us that first glimpse of mysterious Pluto, a distant icy world on the edge of our solar system. The revelations of New Horizons may help us to understand better how our solar system was formed. We explore because we are human and we long to know.” If all goes well from now, ‘New Horizons’ has enough fuel to also explore another significant region of out solar system, the ‘Kuiper belt’. Astronomers predict that this belt could still hold out chunks of celestial objects left over from the formation of our solar system.


Other interesting facts about ‘New Horizons’ is that it is powered by nuclear fuel, RTG (radioisotope thermal generator – remember “The Martian” by Andy Weir?). In fact, these kind of nuclear batteries are in very short supply and it is roughly estimated that NASA has only miniscule portion of Plutonium to make only few more batteries. When Clyde Tombaugh died in 1997, he requested that his ashes be sent to space, and now NASA has attached a portion of his ashes on-board ‘New Horizons’ to reach the planet he discovered.

Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) has successfully put a probe in orbit around Mars. Two years back, China has set a lander and rover on the surface of moon, while the European Space Agency has recently achieved its first soft landing on a comet. But, still it is widely contemplated that only NASA has the capability to do deep space projects. The key advantage NASA has over others is its nuclear power sources like RTG (Russia also possess such nuclear power sources). Right now, NASA has the sources to go beyond Jupiter (for now India, China, and Europe can limit themselves within Mars). But, the budget for planetary exploration are said to be cut decisively from year-to-year.

Jupiter's moon Europa Pic courtesy: NASA/SETI Institute

Jupiter’s moon Europa
Pic courtesy: NASA/SETI Institute

The exploration of other planets in the last four decades has really helped the scientists to learn about Earth. When scientists observed Venus, they understood the entire aspect of ‘greenhouse effect’, which helped us to be aware of the stark environmental changes. The next big planetary exploration the scientific community hoping for is the Europa mission. Europa, an icy moon of Jupiter, is said to have perfect ingredients for life. Scientists believe that Europa, not only possess liquid water, but also energy source and organic compounds.


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