New Horizons launches on voyage to Pluto and beyond
BY WILLIAM HARWOOD
STORY WRITTEN FOR CBS NEWS "SPACE PLACE" & USED WITH PERMISSION
Posted: January 19, 2006; Updated after post-launch press conference
KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. (CBS) - A supercharged Atlas 5 rocket carrying NASA's Pluto-bound New Horizons probe roared to life and dashed away from Earth today on a record-setting three-billion-mile voyage to the frigid edge of the solar system.
Breaking away from Earth's gravity at a record-setting 10.07 miles per
second - 36,256 mph - the nuclear-powered robotic spacecraft was expected to
cross the moon's orbit just nine hours after liftoff and to reach Jupiter
for a velocity boosting flyby in just 13 months.
"We got the launch off at two o'clock Eastern Time and at 2:50, from Canberra in Australia, we received the first signals from the New Horizons spacecraft and the telemetry all indicates that every system is 'go,'" said project manager Glen Fountain. "All the systems on the spacecraft are what we call in the business, they're green. They're in good shape."
Noting the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark expedition to the West Coast, Fountain said "the words of Captain Clark, when he and his expedition arrived at the Pacific Ocean, were very appropriate. He said, 'Oh the joy. Ocean in view.' Well, it's oh the joy! New Horizons is safely on its way."
Carrying the ashes of Pluto's discoverer, Clyde Tombaugh, New Horizons will race by the frozen planet July 14, 2015, passing within 5,500 miles of the icy, 1,460-mile-wide planet at 31,300 mph. Fourteen minutes later, the spacecraft will pass by Charon at a distance of 16,800 miles.
At Pluto's enormous distance from Earth - so far it will take light some 4.5 hours to cross the gulf - it will take days to transmit even a few high-priority images back to Earth. The spacecraft will need nine months to transmit the complete data set.
But that data, the goal of the $700 million mission, will mark a milestone in the history of space exploration as New Horizons scientifically unveils the only "planet" - and some argue about that designation - in the solar system that has not yet visited by humans or robotic spacecraft.
"This is, in a very real sense, the capstone of the initial reconnaissance of the planets that the United States has led for the world since the 1960s," said Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo.
"We're going farther to reach our target and we're travelling faster than any spacecraft ever has. This is a little bit about leadership, a little bit about re-writing the textbooks about the outer planets. But I also want to point out it's also about inspiring the next generation of scientists and explorers, who we hope will take us to even greater heights."
Said project scientist Hal Weaver: "New Horizons is the first mission to the last planet. It's going to perform a detailed reconnaissance of Pluto and its companion, Charon. We're actually not going to stop there. We're going to continue to fly past Pluto deep into the Kuiper Belt. New Horizons is going to be going where no other mission has ever been, so it truly is a mission of exploration and discovery."
Pluto was discovered in 1930 by Tombaugh, who died in 1997 at age 90. His 93-year-old wife, Patricia, attended today's launching, along with her daughter and son in law. Asked Sunday what her husband would say about the current debate over whether Pluto is a bona fide planet, Patricia Tombaugh said, 'you know what he'd say in frustration? 'It's there. So we're going there to see what's there.'"
Today, Stern announced that a portion of Tombaugh's ashes was on board the New Horizons spacecraft.
"My husband would be 100 on Jan. 4. So it's a nice time to have it go there," said Patricia. "He would be so happy and so interested in all this, you know, because it was his thing."
To launch the 1,054-pound New Horizons with enough speed to find out "what's there"in a reasonable amount of time, NASA bought a Lockheed Martin Atlas 5 heavy-lift booster equipped with five strap-on solid-fuel boosters generating a combined 2.5 million pounds of thrust.
The 20-story rocket was rolled to its launch pad at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station early Monday, but a launch try Tuesday was called off due to high winds and a second attempt Wednesday ended when storms in Maryland knocked out power to the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory spacecraft control center.
But today, after extending a final "hold" nearly an hour to let low clouds thin out, the the Atlas 5 roared to life at 2 p.m. and climbed above its launch gantry in less than six seconds - twice as fast as normal.
Climbing vertically atop a trail of incandescent flame for the first few seconds, the Atlas 5 accelerated through the sound barrier about 45 seconds after liftoff and quickly arced East over the Atlantic Ocean through a partly cloudy sky. The solid rocket motors burned out about a minute and a half into flight, falling back to Earth trailing white contrails, while the Atlas continued its ascent atop a tongue of orange flame from its Russian-built RD-180 engine.
The first stage engine shut down and fell away four-and-a-half minutes after launch followed seconds later by the ignition of a hydrogen-fueled Centaur second stage. In the first of two "burns," the Centaur boosted New Horizons into a so-called parking orbit with a low point, or perigee, of about 101 miles and a high point, or apogee, of around 132 miles. After a 20-minute coast, the Centaur reignited, pushing New Horizons out of Earth orbit and into an orbit around the sun that, if nothing else was done, would only carry the craft as far as the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.
To get the kick needed to reach Jupiter and the outer solar system, New Horizons relied on a Star 48B solid-fuel motor that accelerated the small spacecraft to a departure velocity of some 10 miles per second, on course for a flyby of Jupiter in late February 2007.
"This is the 60th anniversary or thereabouts of a trip that had the speed record from the East Coast to the West Coast, that Howard Hughes did," Fountain said. "Well, this spacecraaft would get from the East Coast to the West Coast in five minutes. So that's the kind of speed that we're enjoying as we go out. And yet, nine-and-a-half years to get to Pluto. That gives you a sense of the distance to be travelled."
Flight controllers at the Applied Physics Laboratory plan to carry out two trajectory correction maneuvers over the next 20 days to fine tune New Horizons' path to Jupiter. The probe's half-dozen instruments will be activated and checked out this summer and the Jupiter flyby science campaign will commence this Fall.
To carry out its mission, New Horizons must traverse some 3 billion miles and then hit a keyhole in space just 186 miles across, a target point at the far end of the launch trajectory that will allow the spacecraft to pass midway between Pluto and Charon.
Detailed observations will begin about five months before the flyby, collecting data that will help flight planners fine-tune the spacecraft's course. Starting about three months out, at a distance of about 62 million miles, New Horizons will begin mapping Pluto and Charon. A few weeks later, the spacecraft's images will become sharper than those taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. Daily observations will commence one month before the encounter.
By that point, scientists hope to know whether two recently discovered moons - and others that may be discovered between now and then - have contributed to any as-yet-unseen rings of debris around Pluto that could pose a threat to the spacecraft as it zips through the system. Stern said New Horizons should still have half a tank of hydrazine rocket fuel left by then, more than enough to change course if necessary to avoid any threats.
New Horizons' close encounter with Pluto will last a full day, 12 hours before and after. The spacecraft cannot enter orbit around the planet because no current rocket can launch a probe carrying enough fuel to arrest the velocity needed to get it there in a reasonable amount of time.
Asked about the value of the New Horizons mission to the average taxpayer, NASA Administrator Michael Griffin said "I would ask the question of you what value to you do you think it might be to be able to examine the primordial constituents from which the solar system and all the planets and we ourselves were formed? Because it is believed the Kuiper Belt contains the remnant objects from the formation of the solar system that never coalesced into planets, or mostly didn't coalesce into planets, because they were simply too far out.
"I can't predict, I'm not smart enough or skilled enough to be able to predict what that value might be. But it is fantastically interesting to me to have a chance, maybe within my lifetime, for scientists to see up close what those objects look like and to begin our reconnaissance of that region of space."
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