A New Horizon in Astronomy

by Alex Zapien

While we comfortably spend our days doing work, going outside, and even watching Netflix, history is currently being made; the astronomical frontier of human exploration is being augmented to the point that it is literally out of this world.

One of the major reasons for this is the New Horizons spacecraft. New Horizons was specifically designed to fly by Pluto and its moons to collect valuable information and transmit it back to Earth. As Pluto is the only planet that has not been explored by space probes, New Horizons will allow us to explore the mysterious, icy world at the edge of our solar system.1 And it will not stop there—once it reaches Pluto, New Horizons will continue exploring objects even further than Pluto.

Before its launch on January 6, 2009, New Horizons was designed and integrated at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland.1 Its primary structure includes a power source, a propulsion system, a command and data handling system, and an antenna. Starting with the power source, New Horizons runs, perhaps appropriately so, on plutonium, and uses less power to complete its mission to Pluto than a pair of 100-watt light bulbs. In fact, New Horizons uses so little power that, on average, each of its seven science instruments uses between two to ten watts—about the power of a night light—when turned on.1 New Horizons’ propulsion system consists of 16 small hydrazine-propellant thrusters mounted across in eight locations. These thrusters provide a mere 4.4 Newtons (1 pound) of force and are primarily used for small course corrections. The spacecraft’s “brain” is a radiation-hardened 12 Megahertz Mongoose V processor, which distributes commands to subsystems and collects and sends sequences of information back to Earth. Finally, New Horizons’ protruding 2.1 meter wide high-gain antenna allows it to communicate with mission control back on Earth.

On the day of its launch, this $700 million spacecraft left Earth with a speed of about 45 kilometers per second (100,000 mph). The sun’s gravitational pull, however, slowed the craft to just 19 kilometers per second (40,000 mph) by 2007. Fortunately, scientists managed to precisely calculate a flyby to Jupiter that would allow New Horizons to use the gas giant’s gravitational pull as a slingshot. As a result, the craft regained four kilometers per second (9,000 mph), shortening its trip by three years. After its nine and a half year, 4.8 billion kilometer (3 billion miles) journey, New Horizons whizzed by Pluto at 14 kilometers per second (30,000 mph) on July 14, 2015. What is especially impressive is that the spacecraft actually surpassed NASA’s predicted schedule, arriving 76 seconds earlier than expected.2

Many new discoveries have already been made since New Horizons’ successful journey to Pluto. For instance, Pluto was found to have distinguishable red hues all over its surface, leading it to be known by some as the “second red planet.” In addition, Pluto’s exact size is now known; it is 2,370 kilometers in diameter, much larger than originally predicted. Nonetheless, Pluto is still not large enough to once again be regarded as a planet.3 On the bright side, Pluto has also been dubbed the “loving” planet, due to a geologic feature on its surface that takes the appearance of a heart.4 And finally, nicknames aside, Pluto is now known with certainty to be the largest object beyond Neptune in our solar system.

Although New Horizons has traveled incredible distances, it is still not even close to the edge of our solar system. After Pluto, NASA expects New Horizons to continue its journey, this time to the Kuiper Belt. No specific Kuiper Belt Objects (KBUs) have been targeted, but NASA has their list narrowed down to a few KBUs that were discovered in 2014. Currently, the plan is to have New Horizons start its new journey by 2017 and explore certain KBUs until 2020. What will happen after that is still unknown, but the possibilities in the universe are literally endless. By testing the limits of space exploration, there is no doubt that we will find new horizons in the field of astronomy.

Alex Zapien ‘19 is a freshman in Canaday Hall.

Works Cited

  1. New Horizons: NASA’s Mission to Pluto. http://pluto.jhuapl.edu (accessed Sept. 21, 2015).
  2. Thompson, Amy. ArsTechnica: Scientific Method/Science & Exploration. http://arstechnica.com/science (accessed Sept. 21, 2015).
  3. Scharf, Caleb http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/life-unbounded/the-fastest-spacecraft-ever (accessed Sept. 22, 2015).
  4. Musser, George. Scientific American. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/new-horizons-emerges-unscathed-from-pluto-flyby/ (accessed Sept. 23, 2015).


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