NASA's Mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt
Posted on January 21, 2021
New Horizons Mission Design Lead
Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory
The successful launch of New Horizons into its designed trajectory is one of my favorite moments on the mission and, like the Pluto flyby and Arrokoth encounter, has a special place in my memory.
Even 15 years later, I'm still amazed at how remarkable the launch was. On Jan. 19, 2006 afternoon, I was in the mission operations center at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, monitoring the launch trajectory in real time to see if the Atlas V rocket had delivered the spacecraft onto its preset launch target. I was focused particularly on the orbit-injection burn, -a combined firing of Atlas' Centaur second stage and the Star 48B third-stage rocket, to place New Horizons into the required mission trajectory to Pluto. The Orbital Parameter Message on the second stage, a post-burn orbit status report I received from the Atlas launch team, indicated the launch was going as planned. At the expected time after separation from the third stage, ground communications stations acquired and began tracking New Horizons.
Hours later, in the early evening, I received the initial orbit determination solution from the New Horizons navigation team, whose computers were next to the mission design team's computer. Immediately, I put the estimated spacecraft state (position and velocity) into the mission design computer and calculated the spacecraft's trajectory up to Jupiter, which it would flyby 13 months later, and estimated the change in velocity (or "delta-V") required to correct any launch errors for the first time. I was so happy that the delta-V required for correcting the injection errors was very small, at about 18 meters per second. We had budgeted 92 meters per second, which meant the launch errors were much less than we expected – and we would have to spend much less fuel to put the spacecraft on a precise track to Jupiter.
The New Horizons spacecraft set a record for the highest launch energy ever for a deep space mission, and became the fastest spacecraft ever to depart from Earth – another record it still holds today.
Yanping Guo (second from left) and other members of the New Horizons team stand before the vertical assembly building holding the Atlas V launch vehicle at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in November 2005. (Credit: NASA)
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