In the quest for knowledge about what lies beyond our Solar System, NASA’s Pioneer 10, Pioneer 11, Voyager 1, Voyager 2, and New Horizons have given us new insights. In our previous articles, we have covered the first four of them, today’s discussion is about the New Horizons space probe which was launched in 2006.
New Horizons (Figure 1) is an interplanetary space probe that was launched as a part of NASA’s New Frontiers program (mission to explore several solar systems, including Pluto). Let’s first breeze through key facts of this space probe:
- Primary mission: to perform a flyby study of the Pluto system in 2015.
- Secondary mission: to perform flyby study one or more other Kuiper belt objects (KBOs).
- New Horizons was the first mission to Pluto.
- It was the fastest man-made object ever launched from Earth.
- However, it is not the fastest spacecraft to leave the Solar System (which is held by Voyager 1).
The entire New Horizons trajectory can be briefly described in three phases: Jupiter – Pluto – 486958 Arrokoth. Today we will cover the Jupiter Flyby, and the remaining two will be covered in upcoming newsletters.
New Horizons received a gravity assist from Jupiter, this increased its speed by 4 km/s, thereby shortening its voyage to Pluto by three years. One of the main goals was to observe Jupiter’s atmospheric conditions and analyze the structure and composition of its clouds. The Little Red Spot, spanning up to 70% of Earth’s diameter, was imaged from up close for the first time.
New Horizons was able to observe one of the four Galilean moons: Io. Eleven volcanic eruptions were observed, with one of them shooting materials up to an altitude of 330 km (210 miles). After passing Jupiter, New Horizons spent most of its journey towards Pluto in hibernation mode to extend its life cycle and decrease operation costs.
This Jupiter flyby was a dress rehearsal for the Pluto encounter, which we are quite excited to discuss in our next article.