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  • Writer's pictureSven Piper

New Horizons

Updated: 7 days ago

New Horizons spacecraft
New Horizons spacecraft

The New Horizons mission, launched on January 19, 2006, aboard an Atlas V rocket, journeyed to Pluto, once considered the last planet in our solar system, and beyond.

After the rendezvous with Pluto, mission planners intended to continue the mission with a flyby of some Kuiper Belt objects. Due to the vast distance, the space probe needed nine years to reach its primary target. Between February and March 2007, the space probe flew by Jupiter, the largest planet in our solar system, to receive a gravity boost.

Mission Results:

Photo of Pluto taken by the New Horizons spacecraft
Photo of Pluto taken by the New Horizons spacecraft
  • Mountains on Pluto: The New Horizons spacecraft discovered mountains on Pluto that were likely formed no more than 100 million years ago, suggesting that Pluto may still be geologically active today.

  • Heart-shaped region on Pluto: New Horizons discovered a heart-shaped region on Pluto, which is a large, young, ice-filled basin.

  • Water ice on Pluto: The spacecraft found evidence of water ice on Pluto's surface.

  • Methane ice on Pluto: New Horizons detected methane ice on Pluto's surface, which is a common feature of Kuiper Belt objects.

  • Kuiper Belt dust: The spacecraft spacecraft's dust counter instrument detected higher-than-expected levels of dust in the Kuiper Belt, which could be evidence of an extended Kuiper Belt or even a second belt beyond the one we already know.

  • Arrokoth flyby: New Horizons flew by Arrokoth (2014 MU69), a small, icy object in the Kuiper Belt, providing the first close-up images and data about a Kuiper Belt object.

  • Extended Kuiper Belt: The mission's findings suggest that the Kuiper Belt could be more extended than previously thought, or that there could be a second belt beyond the one we already know.

  • Future exploration: New Horizons is still operational and has sufficient fuel and power to continue exploring into the 2040s, with plans to study the Sun's outer heliosphere, observe KBOs, and make other scientific measurements that only a spacecraft in the distant Kuiper Belt can make. Instruments Include:

  • Ralph: Obtains high-resolution color and surface composition maps of Pluto and Charon using its Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC) and Linear Etalon Imaging Spectral Array (LEISA).

  • Alice: An ultraviolet imaging spectrometer that probes the atmospheric composition of Pluto.

  • REX (Radio Experiment): A small circuit board integrated into the New Horizons radio telecommunications system, crucial for all mission communications.

  • LORRI (Long Range Reconnaissance Imager): Provides the highest spatial resolution, capturing detailed images of Pluto’s surface.

  • SWAP (Solar Wind Analyzer): Measures the solar wind near Pluto to assess the presence of a magnetosphere and the rate of atmospheric escape.

  • PEPSSI (Pluto Energetic Particle Spectrometer Investigation): Searches for neutral atoms that become charged after escaping Pluto’s atmosphere.

  • SDC (Student Dust Counter): Counts and measures the sizes of dust particles along the spacecraft's trajectory, managed primarily by students at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

Key Dates:

Jan. 19, 2006: Launch

July 14, 2015: Pluto Flyby

Jan. 1, 2019: Arrokoth Flyby

Interesting Facts:

  • Part of the ashes of Pluto explorer Clyde Tombaugh are also on board the probe.

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