NASA's Mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt
January 19, 2021
To Pluto and beyond: New Horizons lifts off from Cape Canaveral on Jan. 19, 2006. Watch the full launch video here (Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Southwest Research Institute)
New Horizons is healthy and continues to send data back from the Kuiper Belt, even as it speeds farther and farther from the Earth and the Sun.
But the mission's jam-packed plans for new Kuiper Belt exploration this year are not the subject of this PI Perspective. Instead, I want to concentrate on a very special anniversary, taking place today — our 15th anniversary of launch!
That's right, New Horizons lifted into skies above the Florida coast —from the same Cape Canaveral pad used to launch NASA's storied Voyagers—at 2 pm Eastern Time on Thursday, Jan. 19, 2006. I witnessed the launch from the launch control center and gave my final "GO" as the mission principal investigator to proceed less than a minute before our Atlas V rocket ignited.
The flight of New Horizons. (Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Southwest Research Institute)
In the 5,840 days since launch, New Horizons has blazed through 4.5 billion miles of space to reach its present perch in the Kuiper Belt, the third and most distantly explored region of our planetary system.
But to me, it's not really about the miles. Nor is it about our speed—even if our spacecraft is still moving at well over 30,000 miles per hour, about 100 times faster than an average jetliner. It's not even about our gravity assist and flight-test flyby at Jupiter in 2007, or the first exploration of the Pluto system in 2015, or even the first exploration of a Kuiper Belt object in 2019 – though those historic achievements were our mission's natal objectives, each accomplished spectacularly and revolutionized humankind's knowledge of our solar system.
To me, the biggest memes of the past 15 years have been a doubleheader of inspiring public engagement and intensive teamwork. On the public engagement front, New Horizons broke so many NASA records that I've lost count, but I look back proudly knowing that we touched lives and even awed a sometimes cynical world convinced that great things can't happen in our own time. On teamwork, the crew of New Horizons—the flight controllers, engineers, scientists, and others totaling about 200 belly buttons who guided the project and our spacecraft—showed that by working together we could accomplish something both larger than life and greater than any one of us could ever have hoped to do alone, no matter how talented or hard working an individual might be.
The launch of New Horizons was itself the culmination of 17 years of struggle in the U.S. planetary science community to see NASA commit to and fund the exploration of Pluto and the Kuiper Belt—unfinished business left to my generation by the pioneers who explored all eight of the other classical planets known at the birth of the Space Age.
Widow of Pluto discoverer Clyde Tombaugh, Patsy Tombaugh (1912-2012), then 93, points toward Pluto on the afternoon of our launch, Jan. 19, 2006. [Credit: Michael Soluri]
It took six separate and failed mission concepts before New Horizons was born. It took a Decadal Survey's endorsement. It took a David and Goliath proposal battle that the David in this story, the New Horizons team, won against tall odds. It took years of Washington politics, followed by the blur of a nearly record-setting spacecraft development and nuclear launch approval process during 2002-2005 to reach the launch pad in time for the single, three-week launch window in 2006 that was needed to reach Pluto by 2015. And, all told, it took the dedication and talents of nearly 2,500 men and women.
And when we reached that launch day—when everything depended on perfection in the rocket and the spacecraft—it all worked! It worked so well, in fact, that it seemed almost too easy. It worked so well that just a few hours later, we burned the launch malfunction procedures in an evening beach bonfire to celebrate that we would never need them. It worked so well that we needed just half of the predicted fuel to refine New Horizons' course toward the Jupiter flyby and gravity assist, leaving a present to ourselves—bonus fuel for the exploration of the Kuiper Belt we are now carrying out!
Now, so many miles and so many smiles later, I just want to say one thing to all the people who contributed to making New Horizons successful; to our funders, our mission team, our NASA colleagues, our launch team, the Deep Space Network that provides tracking and communications, our navigation team, our media and education teams, and all those, including all of you, who supported us from the outside: Thank you for making a dream come true, for making a nation and world proud of what humans can accomplish,. And thank you for your commitment to excellence and teamwork that still shines brightly today as New Horizons flies ever onward, exploring, setting records, seeking knowledge, and blazing a trail across our solar system that will ultimately lead it to the stars.
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