New Horizons mission planners have developed a new strategy that could trim nearly a year off their original schedule to send a spacecraft to the solar system's outermost planet.
Now in preliminary development for NASA, New Horizons would be the first mission to explore Pluto and its moon, Charon, as well as the ancient Kuiper Belt of rocky, icy objects beyond the planets. If approved and funded later this year, New Horizons would launch in January 2006, swing around Jupiter for scientific studies and a gravity boost in 2007 and reach Pluto as early as 2015.
"As we continued to study the mission, and optimized our launch window, we realized that we could get the spacecraft to Pluto sooner," says New Horizons mission director Robert W. Farquhar of Hopkins' Applied Physics Laboratory, which manages the mission and will build and operate the spacecraft. "In our best estimates, we can cover the 3 billion miles from Earth to Pluto faster than we once thought, while keeping all the mission's goals intact."
New Horizons project leaders say a faster trip benefits the mission in many ways.
S. Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo., who is New Horizons principal investigator, says, "This a great opportunity to improve our scientific return while reducing mission risks and costs.
"We'll get a better look at Pluto itself," he says, "since more of the surface will be sunlit, and the atmosphere will be another year away from freezing onto the planet's surface. We'll have more fuel for the journey into the Kuiper Belt after exploring Pluto-Charon, and the shorter cruise time reduces some of the costs associated with flight operations."
New Horizons will characterize the global geology and geomorphology of Pluto and Charon, map their surface compositions and temperatures and study Pluto's complex atmosphere in detail. The spacecraft will then visit up to three Kuiper Belt objects beyond Pluto.
In addition to Southwest Research Institute and APL, the New Horizons team includes Stanford University, Ball Aerospace Corp., NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The science team also taps expertise from Lowell Observatory, NASA Ames Research Center, MIT, Washington University, George Mason University, the University of Colorado and Johns Hopkins.
For more information, go to the New Horizons Web site at pluto.jhuapl.edu.