Hidden Nook

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Monday, December 19, 2005

Towards Pluto...And Beyond

[Media Source*]

(MSNBC) A small spacecraft bound for Pluto was being prepared for transfer to the launch pad on Friday in preparation for blastoff next month, NASA officials said.

New Horizons is the centerpiece of a $650 million mission to explore the last of the solar system's original nine planets. Scientists recently have discovered hundreds of Pluto-like objects orbiting more than 50 times farther away from the sun than Earth.

The New Horizon probe weighs about half-a-ton and is nuclear powered (via plutonium pellets), as opposed to solar powered because the suns rays are not powerful enough to generate electricity that deep into space. Scientists will not be able to gather any useful data on Pluto for approximately 9.5 years, and possibly even longer for some of the more interesting Kuiper belt objects (such as Xena and Gabrielle).

The New Horizons spacecraft is set to launch in early 2006, bound for distant Pluto and its moon, Charon, as well as Kuiper Belt objects.

(MSNBC) If the probe is not launched by Feb. 2, New Horizons will miss the opportunity to pick up extra speed by zooming close to Jupiter in 2007 for a slingshot boost from the giant planet's gravity. A direct flight to Pluto would take an additional three years, scientists estimate.

At its speed, there is no chance New Horizons can slow down and enter into orbit around Pluto for an extended stay. The probe does not carry the tremendous amount of fuel required for a braking maneuver.

Instead, the spacecraft and its sensors will target Pluto and its moons from about five months before closest approach to one month after, then head out in search of new subjects.

Hopefully the launching details of this space probe can be finalized, as it would be ashamed to have to wait an additional three years because of a few technical difficulties. Pluto is one of the nine planets that orbit the solar system (ten including Xena) and probably one of the most unique as it is the only world who is gravitationally locked with its moon, Charon. Pluto is believed to also harbor a thin atmosphere, but until a probe confirms this belief, Pluto will remain a puzzle at the edge of our solar system.

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By Darnell Clayton • 11:19 PM • Email Post • •


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