Subscribe free to our newsletters via your
. 24/7 Space News .

The PI's Perspective: Pinch Me!
by Alan Stern
Baltimore MD (SPX) Apr 14, 2011

The New Horizons team consists of people from dozens of organizations, the most prominent of them being NASA itself; the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, where our spacecraft was built and is operated; Southwest Research Institute, where the mission and science team are led; the Jet Propulsion Lab, which assists our partner KinetX in mission navigation; and the Department of Energy, which produced and fueled our radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG) power supply for launch.

New Horizons is healthy and on course. In mid-March, our spacecraft passed the orbit of Uranus, more than 19 astronomical units (AU) from the sun. In fact, we're now almost 20 times as far from the sun as the Earth is.

If you were to make a scale-model solar system in your neighborhood, with the sun at the location of your home, and the Earth at your neighbor's house, then New Horizons is 20 houses down the street - way, way out there! Imagine that - I mean, pinch me, we are really far now!

Although we still have about 12 more AU (or in my analogy above, "houses") to go to reach our rendezvous with Pluto in 2015, some 32 AU from the sun, you can see that we're very far into the journey.

As we continue that journey through 2011, there's much more going on than just mileage markers and planet crossings. Our next big milestone is a nearly two-month-long annual wakeup of our spacecraft from hibernation that begins May 9 and concludes July 1.

During that wakeup we'll check out the spacecraft's prime and backup systems as well as the seven scientific payloads. We'll also do a great deal of spacecraft tracking to refine our knowledge of our exact trajectory to evaluate whether we'll need a small course correction next year, like the maneuvers we made in 2007 and 2010. We'll also update our fault detection and protection software in preparation for the Pluto encounter.

Speaking of the encounter, we'll conduct a special encounter-related test on May 20 using our radio science experiment. Something very rare and special happens that day - the Earth, as seen from New Horizons, will be "occulted" (that is, blocked) by the moon. This will allow us to practice, for the first time, the type of radio occultation we'll perform at Pluto and Charon. Only three such alignments occur along our journey to Pluto, and they all happen in 2011 and early 2012.

We're looking forward to the May 20 test very much, because it'll help us work out any bugs in our Pluto and Charon occultation plans and provide a good simulation for the Deep Space Network team that has to aim its giant antennas precisely at New Horizons and transmit the special signals to create the occultation experiment. We'll conduct a similar test next January to further refine our procedures and techniques.

And there's more going on still. Most importantly, in my mind, is that this month, and throughout summer and fall, we'll use huge telescopes to search for the Kuiper Belt objects beyond Pluto that we'll visit in our extended mission - assuming one is approved. We'll have more to tell you about that in upcoming news notes.

We're also putting the final touches on the eight days of encounter sequencing that fall just before and after our nine-day-long "core" load near Pluto closest approach. Once we complete this in late 2011, we'll sequence the previous 17 days of approach to Pluto that take us from 21 days out to four days out.

The design, implementation and testing of these encounter timelines and command sequences requires exquisite attention to detail and long hours of careful work by many people on the project. We'll have more to say about that later, too.

Something else of note: In late June, New Horizons team members led by Drs. Leslie Young and Cathy Olkin will head to Australia to record a new set of stellar occultations of Pluto, Charon, and possibly even Pluto's small moon Hydra.

These events will tell us whether Pluto's atmosphere is beginning to cool and collapse to the surface, as some scientists have predicted, and allow us to refine knowledge of the sizes of Pluto, Charon and Hydra.

I know that when Leslie and Cathy are doing these observations, their thesis advisor, MIT's Jim Elliott, will be on their mind. Jim, one of the leading planetary astronomers of his time and part of the New Horizons scientific collaboration team, passed away last month - a tragic loss for both his family and planetary science. Our condolences go out to Jim's family and many colleagues.

I'll conclude my update with a shout out of thanks to all the people who work on New Horizons today, and all those who worked on it when we were building and launching the mission.

More than 2,500 people across the United States, from dozens of companies, universities, national labs and NASA installations, have been directly involved in the project. To all of them we all owe a great debt of appreciation.

They made this epic journey across the abyss of our solar system possible. Almost before you know it, in 2015, their handiwork will revolutionize what humankind knows about the Pluto system, dwarf planets and the Kuiper Belt.

And just like the milestone of passing Uranus' orbit and knowing we only have one more such milestone ahead (at Neptune) before we reach our goal, sometimes I have to pinch myself about what a wonderful enterprise space exploration is, and how mounting a journey like ours requires the expertise and dedication of so many people.

Thanks again for following our journey across the ocean of space, to a truly new frontier. And keep on exploring - just as we do!


Related Links
View The PI's Perspective Archive
The million outer planets of a star called Sol

Comment on this article via your Facebook, Yahoo, AOL, Hotmail login.

Share this article via these popular social media networks DiggDigg RedditReddit GoogleGoogle

Memory Foam Mattress Review
Newsletters :: SpaceDaily :: SpaceWar :: TerraDaily :: Energy Daily
XML Feeds :: Space News :: Earth News :: War News :: Solar Energy News

Course Correction Keeps New Horizons On Path To Pluto
Baltimore MD (SPX) Jul 02, 2010
A short but important course-correction maneuver kept New Horizons on track to reach the "aim point" for its 2015 encounter with Pluto. The deep-space equivalent of a tap on the gas pedal, the June 30 thruster-firing lasted 35.6 seconds and sped New Horizons up by just about one mile per hour. But it was enough to make sure that New Horizons will make its planned closest approach 7,7 ... read more

BRP To Contribute To Canadian Moon And Mars Exploration Programs

Naveen Jain Co-Founder And Chairman Of Moon Express

Project Morpheus To Begin Testing At NASA's Johnson Space Center

NASA Announces Winners Of 18th Annual Great Moonbuggy Race

Mars Flight Possible After 2035

Several Drives This Week Put Opportunity Over 17-Mile Mark

Next Mars Rover Nears Completion

Mars In Spain

Yury Gagarin's Flight Remembered

Russia's Medvedev Gives State Honors To Cosmonauts

"I See Earth! It Is So Beautiful!"

Report Provides NASA With Direction For Next 10 Years Of Space Research

Asia's star ever brighter in space

What Future for Chang'e-2

China setting up new rocket production base

China's Tiangong-1 To Be Launched By Modified Long March II-F Rocket

Northrop Grumman To Test Heat Management System On ISS

The MELFI Shuffle: Contingency Planning For Preserving Samples

Space Debris No Threat To ISS

Astronauts head to ISS on spaceship Gagarin

Putin Urges Ukraine To Join New Russian Space Center Project

Arianespace to launch ASTRA 2E Satellite

PSLV Launch On April 20

Russia Looks To Grab Half Of World Space Launch Market

A New Way To Find Planets

Telescope Ferrets Out Planet-Hunting Targets

White Dwarfs Could Be Fertile Ground For Other Earths

NASA Announces 2011 Carl Sagan Fellows

Material Devloped To Remove Radioactive Contaminants From Drinking Water

Computer demand shrinks amid tablet craze: reports

Better Lasers For Optical Communications

WHO eyes 20 year nuclear health watch in Japan

The content herein, unless otherwise known to be public domain, are Copyright 1995-2014 - Space Media Network. AFP, UPI and IANS news wire stories are copyright Agence France-Presse, United Press International and Indo-Asia News Service. ESA Portal Reports are copyright European Space Agency. All NASA sourced material is public domain. Additional copyrights may apply in whole or part to other bona fide parties. Advertising does not imply endorsement,agreement or approval of any opinions, statements or information provided by Space Media Network on any Web page published or hosted by Space Media Network. Privacy Statement