This morning, at 11:49:57 UTC (Coordinated Universal Time) the American space probe New Horizons (by NASA’s New Frontiers program) made its closest approach to the planetoid (or planet, for all you “dwarf” planet classification haters) Pluto (♇). This is HUGE… like, my-head-is-gonna-explode huge. Like “one giant leap for mankind” big. So big, that we spent all day having fun researching for this and for fun. Now since this is still a work in progress, let me give you a step-by-step walk through of New Horizons’ 3,000,000,000+ mile journey, from its launch in 2006, all the way to the outer edges of our solar system.
-Ignition and Stage Separation
This is always the most riveting part of any space mission. With all of the very recent rocket failures happening very soon after launch, we cross our fingers even harder for the safe escape of New Horizons. Liquid hydrogen engines spark and ignite. The probe rids itself of its first-stage Common Core Booster, second-stage Centaur booster, and (inhale…) its Boeing solid-propellant STAR 48B third-stage motor (exhale…). When the third stage detaches, it’s traveling at almost 10 miles a second. At that rate, you could get from New York to Los Angeles in 4-5 minutes.
-Making Use of Jupiter’s Gravity Well
Imagine you’re rollerskating through an amusement park. You skate by the carousel, but this is no ordinary carousel. This is a turbo speed kiddie ride. You grab onto a pole and you’re thrown, zipping past all the other rides to your destination. Now change the amusement park to outer space, yourself to New Horizons, and the carousel to Jupiter. That’s pretty much how we used Jupiter to speed things up.
-Catching Some Zzzzzzs
To conserve power, New Horizons took naps between Jupiter and Pluto.
-The Morning Alarm Clock
Once a year until the final wakeup, NASA turned New Horizons on to make sure the antennae were pointed the right way and make sure all systems were okay to observe Pluto.
-The Final Approach
The last few weeks, pictures with increasing clarity have been coming in, and as of now, the clearest photo of Pluto ever was received by Earth. It will continue to snap pictures until it soars out of sight.
After going dark to gather data, New Horizons’ hopeful thumbs-up with reams of photos should come by 8:50, but photos to be disclosed tomorrow.
This may be a huge milestone in space exploration, but I assure you that we have many more to come. Remember to look for the new photos being released tomorrow morning!
P.S.: We would love to hear of your favorite space mission in the comments.
7.15.2015: The “Heart” region of Pluto was just named Tombaugh Regio after the discoverer.
It’s an amazing world of science…let’s go exploring!
NASA Press Kit