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Around a year ago, in January 2006 a launch at Canavaral began a mission that would not finish as it had started. The launch utilised an Atlas V-551 rocket and carried a compact and it was hoped robust surveillance module that was destined to travel to the known outer limits of our solar system and then beyond. It’s objective was to “Investigate” what was then the furthest planet from our sun Pluto and three of its moons Nix, Hydra and Charon.  The mission was called “New horizons” and though the launch took place some thirteen months ago it was not expected to begin sending information back to Earth on the planet that perhaps it could be said that we know the least about until 2015. It will take almost nine and a half Earth years for the New Horizon mission to reach the planet. The exploration of Pluto and its moons has been high on the agenda for the scientific community for a long time but fiscal constraints had all but ruled out such a mission because the “Scientific yield” was expected to be low but Pluto has one attribute that could raise its viability if man is to leave the solar system and embark upon interstellar travel and that is the possibility that water might exist there.
The New Horizon mission is the fastest ever vehicle launched from Earth and is currently travelling at 36,250 mph [16.21 Km/second] but even at that mind bending velocity it will take nearly a decade to reach the extremes of our own solar system.
On February 28th New Horizons reached Jupiter and it was still only one sixth of the way to its objective, for it to remain on schedule [plus or minus a few days] it was necessary to utilise the gravitational field of the Jovian [Jupiter] complex to increase it’s velocity still further, the encounter added nearly 4km/second to its attained speed increasing its velocity to 46,975 mph [21 km /sec]. At the launch on Earth there was only a 26 day window in which to launch for New Horizons to be able to use the gravitational “Sling shot effect” of Jupiter’s gravity, if it missed that window the journey would have taken longer anything between 2 to 4 Earth years longer. The probe passed within 1,400,000 miles of Jupiter on February 28th  [as close as knocking on Jupiter’s door in the vast expanse of our solar system] it is now on it’s way to the plutonian complex at the edge of our known system at a speed of 46,975 mph [relative to Jupiter. Whilst it was so close to the giant planet the opportunity to observe the changes in the “Red Eye” of Jupiter was a bonus that could not be disregarded and data from the probe is now being analysed. As well as investigating the changes in the “Red spot” which is thought to be a massive storm that has raged for more than 400 years. The probe also measured the volcanic activity on Io, took pictures of Europa, Ganymede and Castilo and still had time for observations of Amalthea, Himala and Elara both the inner and outer moons of Jupiter are of immense scientific interest.
That “New horizons” is fast is beyond dispute but to appreciate how fast a cursory scan of its itinerary both achieved and yet to be achieved will illustrate the speed at which this unmanned mission has consumed the radius of our solar system. The launch took place in January 2006 but by April 2006 it was already crossing the Martian orbit and on it’s way to Jupiter. It began sending back data on the Jovian system in September 2006 and crossed the orbit of Jupiter in February 2007 bound for the limits of Saturn’s orbit where it is expected to arrive in June 2008. It will cross the orbit of Uranus two years nine months later in March 2011. At an average velocity to the order of 13 Km/second it will cross Neptune’s orbit three years and five months afterward and arrive at the Plutonian complex of moons and what was a planet when the mission began but is now designated as a “Sub-planet” just eleven months later in July 2015.
What began as a mission to the outermost known planet of our solar system was altered by The International astronomical union decision to downgrade Pluto to a “Dwarf” or “Sub-Planet”. The planets status has been in dispute since it was discovered in 1933 but it may be that whilst Pluto might not be afforded the full planetary status it could lay claim together with its accepted moon Charon to being the only example of a binary planetary complex in this solar system. The outer planets Neptune and Pluto both have an orbit that is eccentrically elliptical, sometimes Neptune is nearer the sun whilst at other times Pluto is the nearer. The relative position of both is complicated by another feature of the outer reaches of our system, The Kuyper Belt a vast area littered with asteroidal frozen rock and debris pieces of which that have been considered as planetary by virtue of their sheer size. Some of the Kuyper belt objects [KBO] are in fact larger than Pluto and by some astronomical societies Pluto was and still is regarded as simply another KBO. Part of the New Horizon mission will be to determine if the new status of Pluto is justified or not.

When the New Horizon mission has completed its surveillance of Pluto it will use the Plutonian gravitational forces increase its speed once more to traverse and explore the Kuyper Belt. It is perhaps the most suicidal part of the whole mission given the mass of rock, ice and debris that is known to exist beyond Pluto. No space craft has ever been sent to Pluto and certainly never has one gone beyond it. The chances of New Horizons surviving the journey through the Kuyper Belt are slim but at a speed in excess of 13km/second anything that hits it will pass straight though it sustaining critical damage and it’s ultimate destruction. This mission has so far succeeded against all odds and in spite of the fates. Leaving aside the technical expertise, the engineering ability and the planning that went into this mission “To go where no robotic explorer has ever gone before” the question is who supplied that most fickle of Earth like commodities “Luck” because New Horizons has it in spades. Perhaps when man finally embarks on interstellar travel one piece of space junk they will find billions of miles from the Earth will be New Horizons…….The ultimate survivor.


Posted: March 7, 2007 

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