New Horizons Accelerates As Spacecraft Closes In On Pluto

Posted: Jul 1 2015, 4:59am CDT | by , in Latest Science News


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New Horizons Accelerates as Spacecraft Closes in on Pluto

With only two weeks to go, NASA updated the flight path of New Horizons.

NASA released another update on the exciting New Horizons Pluto mission. With just two weeks to go before its historic July 14 fly by of Pluto, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft used the the accelerator and adjusted its path toward the Pluto system.

The 23s thruster burst was the third and final planned targeting maneuver of New Horizons' approach phase to Pluto. It was the smallest of the nine course corrections since New Horizons launched in January 2006. It bumped the spacecraft’s velocity by just 27 centimeters per second, slightly adjusting its arrival time and position at a flyby close-approach target point approximately 7,750 miles (12,500 kilometers) above Pluto’s surface.

While it may appear to be a minute adjustment for a spacecraft moving 32,500 miles per hour, the impact is significant. New Horizons Mission Design Lead Yanping Guo, of the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, says without the adjustment, New Horizons would have arrived 20 seconds late and 114 miles (184 kilometers) off-target from the spot where it will measure the properties of Pluto’s atmosphere. Those measurements depend on radio signals being sent from Earth to New Horizons at precise times as the spacecraft flies through the shadows of Pluto and Pluto’s largest moon, Charon.

In fact, timing and accuracy are critical for all New Horizons flyby observations, since those commands are stored in the spacecraft’s computers and programmed to “execute” at exact times.

This latest shift was based on radio-tracking data on the spacecraft and range-to-Pluto measurements made by optical-navigation imaging of the Pluto system taken by New Horizons in recent weeks. Using commands transmitted to the spacecraft on June 28, the thrusters began firing at 11:01 p.m. EDT on June 29 and stopped 23 seconds later. Telemetry indicating the spacecraft was healthy and that the maneuver went as designed began reaching the New Horizons Mission Operations Center at APL, through NASA’s Deep Space Network at 5:30 a.m. EDT on June 30.

“We are really on the final path,” said New Horizons Project Manager Glen Fountain, of APL. “It just gets better and more exciting every day.”

“This maneuver was perfectly performed by the spacecraft and its operations team,” added mission principal investigator Alan Stern, of Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colorado. “Now we’re set to fly right down the middle of the optimal approach corridor.”

New Horizons is now about 10 million miles (16 million kilometers) from the Pluto system – some 2.95 billion miles (4.75 billion kilometers) from Earth. New Horizons Closest Approach to Pluto: 7:49:57 a.m. EDT, July 14, 2015. Below is a video of the latest images sent from New Horizons.

New Horizons has detected Methane on the surface of Pluto. Astronomers knew since 1976 that there is methane on Pluto, but now it got confirmed.

Via NASA's New Horizons mission site.

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