New Horizons is the first spacecraft to explore Pluto, its moons, and the icy bodies in the Kuiper Belt. Its mission is to map the composition and surface features of Pluto and its moons, and to search for new moons and even rings.
Along with providing our first close-up views of this distant world, New Horizons will also study Pluto's fascinating atmosphere. After it flies past Pluto, it may continue on to an encounter with a Kuiper Belt object.Launched in 2006, New Horizons is the first in the series of NASA's New Frontiers missions.
A full-scale model of New Horizons is on display in the Museum in Washington, DC. The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory donated the model to the Museum in 2008.
New Horizons has seven instruments for gathering images and other data. Because it travels too far from the Sun to rely on solar power, the spacecraft and its instruments are nuclear powered by a radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG).
LORRI (Long Range Reconnaissance Imager)—Telescopic camera that takes high-resolution images.
Ralph—Imaging system that returns color and composition maps.
Alice—Ultraviolet imaging spectrometer for determining atmospheric composition and structure.
SWAP (Solar Wind Around Pluto) and PEPSSI (Pluto Energetic Particle Spectrometer Science Investigation)—Used to study Pluto's escaping atmosphere.
REX (Radio Science Experiment)—Gathers data on the pressure and temperature of Pluto's atmosphere.
SDC (Student Dust Counter)—Counts and measures dust particles encountered by the spacecraft.
New Horizons' 9 1/2-year journey to Pluto began in 2006 with its launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Its Atlas V rocket propelled it to about 58,000 kilometers (36,000 miles) per hour, making it the fastest-traveling spacecraft ever launched. It passed the orbit of the Moon in only nine hours (Apollo spacecraft took three days) and passed Mars in less than three months. A close encounter with Jupiter provided a gravity assist and a further boost in speed, so it could reach Pluto in July 2015.
New Horizons' LORRI telescopic camera captured this image of a giant plume erupting from a volcano on Jupiter's moon Io. New Horizons used its Jupiter flyby in 2007 to rehearse its encounter with Pluto.
New Horizons communicates with Earth by sending radio signals to NASA's Deep Space Network (DSN). DSN antennas are 70 meters (230 feet) across. They are spaced evenly at three locations around the globe, so signals can always be received as the Earth rotates.
It takes 4.5 hours for a signal to travel from Pluto to Earth. At great distances, the amount of data a radio signal can carry in a given time declines, so communication of information and images from New Horizons will be a slow process. Transmission of stored data will continue long after the spacecraft has flown past Pluto.