Dwarf planet mysteries beckon to new horizons
At this very moment one of the fastest spacecraft ever launched - NASA's New Horizons - is hurtling through the void at nearly one million miles per day. Launched in 2006, it has been in flight longer than some missions last, and still has four more years of travel to go.
New Horizons is heading for the lonely world of Pluto on the outer edge of the solar system. Although astronomers now call Pluto a dwarf planet, "it's actually a very large, about 5,000 miles around at the equator," says Alan Stern, principal investigator for the mission. "And it's never been explored." no spacecraft has ever visited Pluto or any dwarf planet.
When New Horizons reaches Pluto it will have traveled 9 ½ years – longer than any spacecraft has ever flown to reach its main target. To save power and reduce wear and tear, it hibernates3 much of the time. But all systems will be ready to spring into action upon arrival in 2015.
Credits: New Horizons is the first mission in NASA's New Frontiers Program of medium-class spacecraft exploration projects. APL manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate and is operating the spacecraft in flight. NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., manages New Frontiers for the agency's Science Mission Directorate in Washington.