Launch Plus Three Years: Looking Back, Looking Ahead

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On the anniversary of New Horizons’ launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., on January 19, 2006, mission team members reflect on liftoff, a busy first three years of flight and the ongoing voyage to Pluto and beyond.

Countdown to Liftoff

To Ralph McNutt, of the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), launch wasn’t just a beginning – it was the culmination of a hard-fought, nearly two-decade-long battle in the scientific community to secure a mission to the ninth planet.

“When the announcer hit ‘zero’ and the Atlas V rocket began plowing its way through the wispy skin of this pale blue dot we call home, it was a special moment,” says McNutt, principal investigator of the New Horizons Pluto Energetic Particle Spectrometer Science Investigation, or PEPSSI. “We really were on the way, and no one could stop us from taking that path to new lands.”
Since January 19, 2006...
• New Horizons has traveled more than 1.21 billion miles (2.08 billion kilometers).
• The spacecraft’s primary computer has executed 443,380 commands from Earth.

Science team co-investigator Richard Binzel of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology remembers the run-up to launch, a four-year concert of spacecraft design, build and testing, and mission planning that had to reach its crescendo by January 2006, in time to meet a month-long launch period and take advantage of an opportunity to use Jupiter’s gravity as a slingshot toward deeper space.
“The transition from launch to flight is truly phenomenal,” Binzel says. “Before launch, the clock looms so large.  Everything has to be ready at the launch window, or else!  In cruise phase the pace of hard work continues, but now the responsibility feels different. We know New Horizons will reach Pluto!”

Streaks across the sky: Greg Bolt of Perth, Australia, captured these telescope images of New Horizons and its third-stage rocket after launch. Read about them here.

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