The first mission to distant planet Pluto is under way
after the launch Jan. 19 of NASA's New Horizons spacecraft
from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla.
New Horizons — designed and built by the Applied
Physics Laboratory — roared into the afternoon sky
aboard a powerful Atlas V rocket at 2 p.m. It separated
from its solid-fuel kick motor 44 minutes, 53 seconds after
launch, and mission controllers at APL in Laurel, Md.,
received the first radio signals from New Horizons a little
more than five minutes later. The radio communications,
sent through NASA's Deep Space Network antennas in
Canberra, Australia, confirmed to controllers that the
spacecraft was healthy and ready to begin initial
The launch, originally scheduled for Jan. 17, had been
twice delayed by adverse weather conditions.
"This is the gateway to a long, exciting journey,"
said Glen Fountain, New Horizons project manager from APL.
"The team has worked hard for the past four years to get
the spacecraft ready for the voyage to Pluto and beyond, to
places we've never seen up close. This is a
once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, in the tradition of the
Mariner, Pioneer and Voyager missions, to set out for first
looks in our solar system."
The 1,054-pound, piano-sized spacecraft is the fastest
ever launched, speeding away from Earth at approximately
36,000 miles per hour on a trajectory that will take it
more than 3 billion miles toward its primary science
target. New Horizons will zip past Jupiter for a gravity
assist and science studies in February 2007 and then
conduct the first close-up, in-depth study of Pluto and its
moons in summer 2015. As part of a potential extended
mission, the spacecraft would then examine one or more
additional objects in the Kuiper Belt, the region of
ancient, icy, rocky bodies (including Pluto) far beyond
"The United States of America has just made history by
launching the first spacecraft to explore Pluto and the
Kuiper Belt beyond," said Alan Stern, New Horizons
principal investigator, from Southwest Research Institute
in Boulder, Colo. "No other nation has this capability.
This is the kind of exploration that forefathers, like
Lewis and Clark 200 years ago this year, made a trademark
of our nation."
Over the next several weeks, mission operators at APL
will place the spacecraft in flight mode, check out its
critical operating systems and perform small propulsive
maneuvers to refine its path toward Jupiter. Following
that, among other operations, the team will begin checking
and commissioning most of the seven science instruments.
After the Jupiter encounter — during which New
Horizons will train its science instruments on the large
planet and its moons — the spacecraft will "sleep" in
electronic hibernation for much of the cruise to Pluto.
Operators will turn off all but the most critical
electronic systems and check in with the spacecraft once a
year to assess the critical systems, calibrate the
instruments and perform course corrections, if
Between the in-depth checkouts, New Horizons will send
back a beacon signal each week to give operators an instant
read on spacecraft health. The entire spacecraft, drawing
electricity from a single radioisotope thermoelectric
generator, operates on less power than a pair of 100-watt
household light bulbs.
New Horizons is the first mission in NASA's New
Frontiers Program of medium-class spacecraft exploration
projects. Stern leads the mission and science team as
principal investigator. APL manages the mission for NASA's
Science Mission Directorate and is operating the spacecraft
in flight. The mission team also includes Ball Aerospace
Corp., the Boeing Co., NASA Goddard Space Flight Center,
NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Stanford University,
KinetX, Lockheed Martin Corp., University of Colorado, U.S.
Department of Energy and a number of other firms, NASA
centers and university partners. NASA's Launch Services
Program at Kennedy Space Center was responsible for the
For more information about New Horizons mission, go to