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NASA Pluto mission looks good to go

January launch for New Horizons

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NASA is making final preparations for the launch of its New Horizons mission to Pluto and moon Charon - the first dedicated trip to the distant planet.

New Horizons' antenna is attached. Photo: NASAThe New Horizons will blast off atop an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral no earlier than 17 January next year, and within a 35-day launch window. Once on its way, New Horizons will slingshot round Jupiter in 2007, thereby cutting the one-way trip by five years. The expected rendevous with Pluto could be as early as mid-2015.

Mary Cleave, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, enthused: "New Horizons will study a unique world, and we can only imagine what we may learn. This is a prime example of scientific missions that complement the Vision for Space Exploration."

Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator, added: "Exploring Pluto and the Kuiper Belt is like conducting an archeological dig into the history of the outer solar system, a place where we can peek into the ancient era of planetary formation."

New Horizons was designed and built at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. It weighs in at 1,050 pounds, and is nicely described as roughly the size of a piano. It boasts "imaging infrared and ultraviolet spectrometers, a multi-color camera, a long-range telescopic camera, two particle spectrometers, a space-dust detector and a radio science experiment".

The vehicle will spend most of its jaunt in hibernation mode, sending out a weekly beacon signal to report on status. Once a year, scientists will perform a health check to monitor "critical systems, calibrate instruments and perform course corrections, if necessary". New Horizons gets its juice from "a single radioisotope thermoelectric generator" and consumes less than 200 watts.

Once at Pluto, New Horizons will "characterize the global geology and geomorphology of Pluto and Charon, map their surface compositions and temperatures, and examine Pluto's atmospheric composition and structure". ®

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