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One Year Down, Eight to Go, On The Road to Pluto

New Horizons lifts off on a pillar of smoke and fire.
by Alan Stern
Boulder CO (SPX) Jan 24, 2007
A year ago this past Friday, on 19 January 2006, New Horizons lifted off on a pillar of smoke and fire that began its journey to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt. How quickly that year has passed. During our first year of flight, New Horizons and our ground team accomplished a great deal, including:

- A complete checkout of the spacecraft and its redundant subsystems.

- Three small post-launch trajectory correction maneuvers that precisely steered our little craft toward its Pluto aim point, some 2,000,000 km off Jupiter's limb.

- A complete checkout and the initial calibrations of all seven of the scientific instruments aboard New Horizons.

- The design, testing, and installation of new guidance and navigation, fault protection/autonomy, and command and data handling software packages that repair bugs found in flight and enable a variety of new capabilities as well.

- Tests of flyby target tracking capabilities during a serendipitous, target of opportunity flyby of the small asteroid 2002 JF56, now officially named "APL" by the IAU.

- Initial planning for the first hibernation phase on the cruise from Jupiter to Pluto.

- Preparation of over 700 separate Jupiter science observations for conduct during the January-June 2007 timeframe.

- And the start of Jupiter approach observations on 06 January 2007.

In learning to fly our "bird," we've come to also work the kinks out of our ground systems, our ground-based spacecraft simulator, our flight control processes, and our data reduction and observation planning tools.

These many activities above summarize the busy year we've had, but they hardly capture the intense workload for the small science and operations team that together operates New Horizons.

Now, as we think about the one year behind us and the almost 8.5 years to go to reach our first frontier destination-the Pluto system-we're humbled by the task ahead: We must be good stewards of New Horizons as it flies another 2.5 billion miles (over 4 billion kilometers)!

The lesson here is clear: We have a lot to be proud of, but we can never let our guard down, for the goods we aim to bring home are still far beyond our present position, and almost a decade still hence. We'll, enough on that. We have a Jupiter encounter underway and it's already exciting.

But before I turn to the beginnings of our Jupiter encounter just below, I want to cover a topic I promised I would when I last wrote, some two weeks back. It's called "New Horizons kids." The idea behind this is something I had when I saw the marvelous image below of some boys watching our launch last year. That image gave me the idea that we could follow the development of some children growing up during our 9.5 year journey from Earth to Pluto.

So, today, I am announcing a new part of our Education and Public Outreach (EPO) Program: It's called New Horizons Kids, or NHKs.

What we're looking for is to find 4 to 6 boys and girls born on 19 January 2006, and another 4 to 6 kids who turned 10 that day. We'll follow those ten or twelve kids as they grow to be 10 and 20 years old, respectively, while our dream machine New Horizons soars across the solar system. From time to time, we'll check in on our kids, and by the time the newborns from launch reach 4th grade and the 10 year olds from launch reach the middle of college, we'll be at Pluto.

So, if you or a relative or a friend has a child who was born on either 19 January 2006 or 19 January 1996, please send the child's name, birth date, a recent picture, and the name and email address of their parents to our New Horizons EPO lead, Ms. Kerri Beisser at [email protected]. We'll be collecting nominations until we pass Jupiter, and then we'll announce the roster of children we'll be following for another 8- years as New Horizons Kids.

Now let me turn to my final topic for this time: We are now in full swing doing Jupiter approach observations. Already, our SWAP and PEPSSI instruments are measuring the particle environment up stream of Jupiter, looking for the first signs of the giant planet's magnetospheric influence, which we hope to detect early next month.

At the same time, our LORRI and Ralph imagers are already training themselves on Jupiter, assessing its meteorological state and using its satellites for both optical navigation practice and calibration targets. So too, our REX radio science package has begun testing using the Jupiter system as a calibration source, and our Alice ultraviolet spectrometer is planning to begin an intensive set of observations of Jovian aurora and the Io plasma torus in just over a month.

And already exciting results are revealing themselves. Early LORRI imagery of Jupiter have revealed its atmospheric state to be unlike what Cassini or Galileo saw, and much more reminiscent of the 1979 era of Voyager 1's flyby.

In fact, just last week Jupiter expert Dr. Kevin Baines of the Jet Propulsion Lab, one of our mission science team collaborators, wrote on seeing the first LORRI approach images: "It seems clear that Jupiter is showing us a different face than we've seen on previous encounters. Jupiter's equatorial and southern tropical latitudes seem remarkably quiescent, all the way down to the Great Red Spot (GRS). It seems the skies are clear over a much larger fraction of the planet than has been typically encountered by these other spacecraft....So it seems we may not get the typical ammonia-cloud storms forming in the GRS turbulent region.

However, Jupiter is known for dramatic spurts of activity, and we can keep our fingers crossed that something a bit more exciting might happen before late February...But if Jupiter remains relatively quiet, this might give us a valuable opportunity to effectively plumb the obscure depths of Jupiter below the ammonia clouds.

In particular, these clear skies mean we can look deep over nearly the entire turbulent region northwest of the GRS. With the spectral mapping capability of LEISA, this could give us the first near-IR spectral identification of deep water clouds there, if the skies are clear of the ammonia hydrosulfide cloud as well."

Another of our key Jupiter experts, mission science team collaborator Dr. Amy Simon of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center was also impressed with our first imagery of the giant planet, and wrote: "Here are my first thoughts. I'm struck by how similar the equatorial region appears, compared with a Voyager 1 map.

Away from there, the GRS is still rounder today, and currently shows less convective activity in the region to its west. We also don't see brown barges in the north, but we haven't seen those since Voyager, anyway. The "Little Red Spot" is still red, but that region may be showing some other activity."

This is so cool! We set out for Pluto-Charon and the Kuiper Belt thinking of Jupiter as little more than a gravity assist target and a testing ground in preparation for the real meat and potatoes that lies ahead in the second half of the 2010s.

Yet, even our first Jupiter system observations are revealing new things about the solar system's largest planet. And we were still 35 times farther away when those first images were taken, than we will be at closest approach. So hold on to your hat, sports fans, its going to get better, and better, and better over the next six weeks: Jupiter, here we come!

Well, that's all I have time to write just now. I'll be back with another update soon, as Jupiter further nears. In the meantime, keep on exploring, just like we do.

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NASA Spacecraft En Route To Pluto Prepares For Jupiter Encounter
Laurel MD (SPX) Jan 19, 2007
NASA's New Horizons spacecraft is on the doorstep of the solar system's largest planet. The spacecraft will study and swing past Jupiter, increasing speed on its voyage toward Pluto, the Kuiper Belt and beyond. The fastest spacecraft ever launched, New Horizons will make its closest pass to Jupiter on Feb. 28, 2007. Jupiter's gravity will accelerate New Horizons away from the sun by an additional 9,000 miles per hour, pushing it past 52,000 mph and hurling it toward a pass through the Pluto system in July 2015.

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