NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft nears the end of its 9 year, 3 billion mile journey as it approaches the former-planet Pluto. By Sunday, it will begin sending first-ever footage of the unexplored world.
New Horizons is currently more than 100 million miles from Pluto, so the first images will appear as little more than bright dots. The images will be used to help scientists measure distance and guide the spacecraft to fly by Pluto mid-July.
“It’s going to be a sprint for the next seven months, basically, to the finish line,” said Hal Weaver of Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Lab. “We can’t wait to turn Pluto into a real world, instead of just a little pixelated blob.”
New Horizons was launched from Cape Canaveral in January 2006 on a $700 million budget. Last month, flight controllers began preparing the spacecraft for the most important phase of its journey.
“We have been working on this project, some people, for over a quarter of their careers, to make this mission happen,” said project manager Glen Fountain of the Applied Physics Lab. “And now we’re about to hit the mother lode.”
The spacecraft will relay hundreds of images of Pluto and its moon Charon back to earth through the upcoming months. Scientists plan to release the image publicly in early February.
By May, the photos taken by New Horizons will surpass the quality of those taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. Images will continue to improve and reveal more about the former-planet as the spacecraft continues to travel closer.
New Horizons will pass Pluto on July 14 at a speed of 31,000 miles per hour. It will be 7,700 miles from Pluto and 18,000 miles from Charon.
After launching from Florida, NASA’s Orion spacecraft splashed into the Pacific Ocean less than five hours later. The successful $375-million flight test officially launched the U.S. back into the final frontier.
“Everywhere I go, the world over, students, citizens, scientists, explorers and entrepreneurs are eager to get in on the action in this new era of space exploration,” NASA administrator Charles Bolden told CNN prior to the Orion launch.
The unmanned test flight was the first step in NASA’s developing Mars exploration program. Last week, NASA officials announced intentions to send astronauts to Mars by the mid-2030s.
By 2025, teams of four astronauts will travel to asteroids between Earth and the Red Planet. The next test flight is set for 2018.
The purpose of Friday’s test flight was two-fold: to test critical safety systems and to expose the spacecraft to the orbital environment it would endure for longer missions.
After recent spacecraft launch catastrophes shocked the global audience, NASA is eager to proceed with effective precautions. The 11-foot-long capsule was filled with sensors measuring radiation, heat, and other critical factors.
Upon landing two of the five airbags designed to keep the spacecraft floating upright failed to deploy. The minor hitch did not prevent effective retention or recovery of the capsule.
“The world has learned much about the Red Planet after decades of exploration with rovers and orbiters, but the time has come for human exploration, and we intend to meet the challenge,” Bolden said. “The Orion test flight is the first step. It is important to remember that NASA sent humans to the moon by setting a goal that seemed beyond our reach.
“With our Journey to Mars program, NASA is once again well on its way to breathing new life into an American dream and turning science fiction into science fact,” he said.
NASA reported that its Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft, the “first spacecraft dedicated to exploring the tenuous upper atmosphere of Mars,” successfully rendezvoused with Mars and began orbiting the planet on September 21.
MAVEN’s successful rendezvous was the culmination of 11 years of work for the NASA team and about 10 months of travel for the spacecraft.
“It’s taken 11 years from the original concept for MAVEN to now having a spacecraft in orbit at Mars,” said Bruce Jakosky, MAVEN principal investigator with the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado, Boulder. “I’m delighted to be here safely and successfully, and looking forward to starting our science mission.”
When the NASA team got the news they had been waiting for—“Based on observed navigation data, congratulations, MAVEN is now in Mars orbit”—they “erupted with cheers of happiness and relief.” There was only one opportunity during the spacecraft’s projection to get it into orbit, and they had succeeded.
MAVEN is now in the data collection phase of its journey. Three of its eight scientific instruments were activated on September 22, and the rest will activate between now and early November.
“NASA has a long history of scientific discovery at Mars and the safe arrival of MAVEN opens another chapter,” said John Grunsfeld, astronaut and associate administrator of the NASA Science Mission Directorate at the agency’s Headquarters in Washington. “Maven will complement NASA’s other Martian robotic explorers—and those of our partners around the globe—to answer some fundamental questions about Mars and life beyond Earth.”
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