NASA's Mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt
Being the mission principal investigator for New Horizons is a fascinating and rewarding experience. With this inaugural monthly column, I am going to begin sharing some of my thoughts and experiences about leading the mission with you. But in this first column, I'll simply give you a mission status report.
With this monthly column I am also going to run a picture of the month. This month's picture is of the core New Horizons spacecraft and science team. It was taken in November 2004 at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, where the spacecraft is being built.
New Horizons spacecraft integration and test efforts continue. As of late 2004, the spacecraft structure had been outfitted with its propulsion system, and engineering models of all of its "A side" avionics. Also aboard the spacecraft are the flight star trackers, Sun sensors, and five of the seven scientific instruments. The primary flight avionics, the power distribution unit, and the flight inertial measurement units (IMUs) are planned for integration by the end of February. Other important project milestones achieved of late include Los Alamos National Laboratories' completion of fuel processing for the radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG) that would be used on the mission and another successful flight of the Atlas V launch vehicle family on which New Horizons would fly if NASA decides to proceed with the mission and obtains Presidential launch approval.
This is going to be very busy year for all of us on the project. In 2005 we plan to complete the construction of the spacecraft, put it through numerous tests and then environmental qualifications (shaking it to simulate launch, putting it in a thermal vacuum chamber for two months of "space" testing), and conduct mission simulations. This fall there will be shipment to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, followed by more testing there.
Also during 2005, we will commemorate two important historical milestones. This month - on February 18 - we're celebrating the 75th anniversary of Clyde Tombaugh's 1930 discovery of our main mission target, Pluto. In December, we'll celebrate the 100th anniversary of Gerard Kuiper's birth. Kuiper is the astronomer most closely associated with the concept of a debris belt beyond the giant planets - which is now called the Kuiper Belt in his honor. After reconnoitering Pluto and its moon, Charon, New Horizons hopes to fly on to encounter at least one Kuiper Belt Object.
That's it for now. Next month, expect an insider's take on how it feels to be building humankind's "first mission to the last planet."
- Alan Stern