New Horizons mission: objectives, challenges and goals

Humans have always wanted to explore the space and its mysteries. Observation was everything we could do until 1961 when the soviet pilot  Yurin Garin became  the first man who travel to the outer space.

Unfortunately, there were other places far far away that couldn’t be easily explored by humans. Pluto, a dwarf planet discovered on February 18th in 1930 by Clyde Tombaugh is 7.5 billion kilometers far from Earth so, because of the distance,  visiting that planet was just an impossible dream for humans.

Then, in 2006, the NASA sent a spacecraft to explore Pluto and the Kuiper Belt. The mission was called New Horizons and it is still in progress. It was in 2015 when the spacecraft finally arrived to Pluto in order to explore the planet and identify the main characteristics of its surface and atmosphere.

Alan Stern, who is an engineer and scientist, is the man behind New Horizons investigation. Other institutions such as the NASA and the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University are also involved.

The spacecraft

A Radio Thermoelectric Generator (RTG) gives the spacecraft all the  needed energy. The RTG transforms the heat from the plutonium dioxide into electricity, that’s how this important device works. Some of the spacecraft’s elements are two computers, one high gain antenna, two backup gain antennas, one medium gain dish, a solid-state memory buffer and cameras.

As the trip was going to be long, New Horizons entered in an interval of electronic hibernation after it passed Jupiter in order to save energy. But don´t worry, it began studying Pluto´s surroundings five months before its closest approach.

With a speed of 16.6 km/s and a mass of 1,058 pounds, New Horizons is the fastest spacecraft ever invented and the first one exploring the outer Solar System.

Challenges

Such a distance inevitably means an important challenge to overcome: communication. How much time does the information take to travel from Pluto to Earth?

If you think that waiting an hour to receive a message is an eternity, you will be gobsmacked as soon as you know that after the first encounter with Pluto and Charon; it took 15 months to download all the data.

15 months? Yes, remember that the spacecraft was 4.5 light hours far from Earth and it was only possible to transmit 1-2 kilobits per second.

Photos

Thanks to New Horizons mission, we now know more about Pluto and other bodies from the Kuiper Belt such as moons and frozen volatiles. The discoveries have opened a new era in the scientific world and maybe, they will be an inspiration for future investigations.

In the words of Alan Stern: “The data that New Horizons sent back about Pluto and its system of moons has revolutionized planetary science and inspired people of all ages across the world about space exploration. It’s been a real privilege to be able to do that, for which I’ll be forever indebted to our team and our nation.”

Fortunately, the digital era has increased the access to relevant information from important institutions such as NASA so we can easily be updated about this research. In case you have not seen them, we are now going to show you some outstanding photos taken since 2015:

1.-Pluto

Let me introduce you Pluto’s real colors: charcoal black, dark orange and white. The planet takes that color due to the abundance of icy areas, nitrogen and methane.

2.- Charon

Although we already knew about the existence of this moon since 1978, the photo was taken on July 14th in 2015. Here you can admire Charon, one of the five Pluto’s moons and in fact the biggest one. Charon has ice volcanoes, mountains, canyons and cliffs so it could be considered a dwarf planet if it were not moving around Pluto.

3.- Blue sky

This photo is from August 6th, 2017 and shows a blue ring in the “sky”. The ring is produced by the combination of different chemical reactions in the atmosphere.

4.- Elements

Even though this is not officially a photo, this image was made with information given by New Horizons. Edited by Bill Keeter in 2017, the colorful diagram shows the four important elements that form Pluto: methane, nitrogen, carbon monoxide and water.

5.- Ultima Thule

 This photo was taken in 2019 in the Kuiper Belt and here you can see a frozen volatile named Object 2014 MU69 which is popular known as Ultima Thule.

It’s fantastic to see this images, don’t you you think? Which photo did you like the most? There is no doubt that the mission New Horizons has been crucial as it involves high technology, experts and information that help us to understand more about the galaxy. Even though we are far yet to know everything about the Solar System´s edge, we are now closer than ever before.