The first spacecraft designed to study Pluto, the
solar system's farthest planet, took the first steps on a
long journey June 13, when it was shipped from the
Johns Hopkins Applied
Physics Laboratory — where it was designed and
built — to NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in
Greenbelt, Md., for its next round of pre-launch tests.
Proposed for launch in January 2006, the New Horizons
spacecraft spent the previous week in an APL vibration test
lab, where engineers checked the structural integrity of
the piano-sized probe aboard a large shake table. The table
simulated the energetic ride New Horizons would encounter
during liftoff aboard an Atlas V, one of the largest launch
vehicles NASA uses.
"Our testing program is off to a good start," said
Glen Fountain, New Horizons project manager at APL. "We've
shown that New Horizons is structurally ready for the ride
on the launch vehicle, and now we'll test it in the full
range of conditions it would face on the voyage to Pluto;
Pluto's moon, Charon; and beyond."
Over the next three months at Goddard the mission team
will check New Horizons' balance and alignment in a series
of spin tests; put it before wall-sized speakers that
simulate the noise-induced vibrations of launch; and seal
it in a four-story thermal-vacuum chamber that duplicates
the extreme hot, cold and airless conditions of space. This
fall the team plans to transport New Horizons to Kennedy
Space Center, Fla., for final launch preparations.
"The scientific community has put high priority on
exploring the frontier that is the Pluto system and the
Kuiper Belt beyond," said Alan Stern, New Horizons
principal investigator, from the Southwest Research
Institute in Boulder, Colo. "With the move of New Horizons
from APL to NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, we are
closer to achieving this historic exploration."
Pending completion of environmental reviews and launch
approvals, the spacecraft would launch from Cape Canaveral
Air Force Station, Fla., during a 35-day window that opens
Jan. 11, 2006. The boost from the Atlas V and a STAR-48B
kick motor would send the relatively light New Horizons on
the fastest spacecraft trip ever to the outer solar system,
reaching the moon's orbit distance less than nine hours
after launch and zooming through the Jupiter system just 13
Jupiter's gravity assist would put the 1,000-pound
craft on course for a five-month-long flyby reconnaissance
of Pluto-Charon in summer 2015, when the "double planet"
would be about 3.1 billion miles from Earth. As part of an
extended mission, the spacecraft could also head farther
into the Kuiper Belt to examine one or two of the ancient,
icy mini-worlds in the vast region at least a billion miles
beyond Neptune's orbit.
New Horizons is the first mission in NASA's New
Frontiers program of medium-class, high-priority solar
system exploration projects, and is the 62nd spacecraft
built at APL. As principal investigator, Stern leads a
mission team that includes APL, Ball Aerospace, Boeing,
Goddard Space Flight Center, Jet Propulsion Laboratory,
Stanford University, KinetX, Lockheed Martin, University of
Colorado, U.S. Department of Energy and a number of other
firms, NASA centers and university partners.
For more information on the mission, go to