New Horizon makes it into history books as it flies past Pluto

July 14, 2015
IE

The New Horizons spacecraft from NASA made its way by Pluto at 7:49 today EDT. The unmanned probe flew past the planet at 12,500 km away and doing a speed of 14 km/sec and this made it the last classical planet to have been paid a visit by the spacecraft.

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[Image Source: NASA]

The flyby of the New Horizons today is historic and also paradoxical due to the fact that the spacecraft, which cost around US$750 million is on a ballistic trajectory. The mission control of NASA knows that the craft has gone past Pluto but the biggest question they want answers to is has it survived the attempt and in what state. Pluto is around 4.77 billion kilometres away from the Earth and the radio signals take around 4 hours and 25 minutes before they reach NASA.

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[Image Source: NASA]

Even worse is the news that New Horizons is getting itself ready to bring the seven scientific instruments to bear and the main antenna of the probe is pointing in the wrong direction for it to be able to transmit to the Deep Space Network of NASA on earth. This means that they will not receive news about whether the mission has been a failure or success until 9pm EDT.

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[Image Source: NASA]

New Horizons should hit the 300 kilometer circle target at the right moment if all goes to plan. It has made its way past Pluto and the five moons and has now gone deep into space. A spokesperson for NASA yesterday cautioned that the chance of the craft encountering a dust particle or perhaps other large debris is around one in 10,000. However even the smallest grain of debris would hit the craft like a bullet and it could cripple or perhaps even destroy the craft.

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[Image Source: NASA]

New Horizons has carried out the 30 scientific objectives autonomously and these include mapping, studying the atmosphere, and looking for new moons and rings. Along with this, the data it gathered is going to help NASA to pin down the exact size of Pluto along with other vital information such as the density and magnetic field, if it has any, along with information about the largest moon, Charon.

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[Image Source: NASA]

The flyby is now over and the next goal of the craft is the Kuiper belt object, which is years away. However it does have a lot of work in front of it and thanks to the limited transmitting power and distance, the probe is only capable of returning 2 kilobits of data per second. This means that the huge amount of data collected is going to take around 16 months to download.