April 1st: New Horizons, NASA’s First Mission to Pluto


365DaysDate: April 1, 2009


Title: New Horizons, NASA’s First Mission to Pluto

Podcaster: Andy Poniros

Organization: Andy Poniros Productions. Future podcasts will be listed on The Solar System Ambassador Event web site at www2.jpl.nasa.gov/ambassador/events.html

Description: NASA’s New Horizons Mission is speeding towards Pluto. How will it get there and what will it find?

Bio: Andy Poniros is a JPL / NASA public outreach volunteer. When he’s not spending time with his family, he enjoys telescope building, and educating the public in the fields of astronomy & space exploration. He is currently working on astronomy & space exploration podcasts for children and adults.

Today’s Sponsor: This episode of “365 Days of Astronomy” is sponsored by the AAVSO


On January 19, 2006, the New Horizons Spacecraft was launched from Cape Canaveral launch complex 41 atop a powerful Atlas V551 rocket.

Using its 3.5 million pounds of thrust, the Atlas rocket propelled the fastest spacecraft to leave this planet on its journey to Pluto and beyond.

Due to a successful lift-off before February 14, 2006, the spacecraft was granted a timely gravity assist from the planet Jupiter 13 months later, allowing New Horizons to reach its destination on July 14th 2015, trimming almost 5 years from its already lengthy trip through our solar system.

During its brief encounter with Jupiter, the New Horizon spacecraft witnessed events no probe has viewed before, lightning near Jupiter’s poles, boulder size objects racing through the planets faint rings, and the interior of erupting volcanoes on its moon Io.

A 9½ year trip may seem like a very long time to most Earthlings…but one must realize that New Horizon’s closest possible approach to Pluto and its moons will be at a distance of more than 30 astronomical units… that’s approximately 3 billion miles.

If you were able to drive your car to Pluto at a speed of 60 MPH, it would take more than 5,700 years to reach your destination. Of course, that’s without stopping for gas, tolls, or something to eat.
Fortunately, the New Horizons spacecraft will travel at an average speed of 14 km/sec… more than 31,000 miles per hour.

At this speed the spacecraft would complete a voyage from the Earth to our Moon in less than 9 hours… a trip that took the Apollo astronauts more than 3 days to complete.

During most of its long journey, the spacecraft will be in a hibernation mode, minimizing power consumption and communicating its health status to eagerly awaiting mission specialists on Earth.
Blanketed by a special thermal material that protects it from temperatures as cold as -340 degrees Fahrenheit, New Horizons will carry several onboard scientific instruments that will conduct various experiments, stringently using only 200W of power…less than 1/4 the power required to toast two slices of bread.

These scientific instruments will study the composition and structure of Pluto’s tenuous atmosphere, provide thermal maps of its surface, study dust particles, and take high resolution images of geological features of the near and far sides of the planet.

New Horizons’ telescopic camera, the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager, also known as LORRI, will begin gathering data several months before the spacecraft’s projected encounter with the Pluto system, producing higher resolution images than the Hubble Space Telescope one hundred days before its closest approach.

The majority of the primary mission’s data collecting will take place during a two-hour period, as the spacecraft zooms by Pluto, its moon Charon, and its two more recently discovered moons Nix & Hydra, at a distance of approximately 6,000mi.

The data transmitted by the spacecraft traveling at a speed of 186,000 mi/sec, will take more than 4 hours to reach our planet. To compensate for the time delay and very slow transmitting speed, New Horizons will store this information and transmit it at timely intervals back to Earth over the following six months.

If the spacecraft is in good health after its primary mission, New Horizons will flyby and examine one or two other recently discovered Kuiper Belt Objects sharing similar physical and orbital properties as Pluto.
What will scientist find? Even our most powerful optical planetary space telescope, the Hubble Space Telescope, cannot resolve basic surface features on Pluto.

Will we find ice volcanoes, mountains made of rocky materials, an atmosphere that contains hydrocarbons – the building blocks of life?

Data from this mission will help scientists find the missing pieces to the puzzle of how these icy worlds fit in with rocky objects like Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars and gas giant objects like Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune and Uranus, and help us with our continuing quest to accurately define what we consider a planet to be.

For more information regarding this mission, see the NASA’s New Horizons web site. www.pluto.jhuapl.edu/

For more information regarding Pluto’s planetary status, Google “The great planet debate” … you will find several related articles & podcasts.

I’m Andy Poniros.

Thanks for listening to this 365 Days of Astronomy podcast!

End of podcast:

365 Days of Astronomy
The 365 Days of Astronomy Podcast is produced by the New Media Working Group of the International Year of Astronomy 2009. Audio post-production by Preston Gibson. Bandwidth donated by libsyn.com and wizzard media. Web design by Clockwork Active Media Systems. You may reproduce and distribute this audio for non-commercial purposes. Please consider supporting the podcast with a few dollars (or Euros!). Visit us on the web at 365DaysOfAstronomy.org or email us at info@365DaysOfAstronomy.org. Until tomorrow…goodbye.

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2 Responses to April 1st: New Horizons, NASA’s First Mission to Pluto

  1. George Bakes April 29, 2009 at 5:54 pm #

    Congratulations Andy, Your intresting podcast enriched much my space knowledge. G bakes

  2. George Bakes April 29, 2009 at 6:09 pm #

    Congratulations Andy,Well done and read. G. Bakes

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