It is only the size of a baby grand piano, but it is the fastest space shuttle ever to be launched. New Horizons will hurtle towards its target, Pluto, at a speed of sixteen kilometres per second. But the planet’s distance of nearly five billion kilometres means the mission will take up to ten years. However scientists say the wait will be well worth it.
The probe should pass the moon in nine hours and reach Jupiter in just over a year. Then it will use that planet’s extreme gravitational pull as a slingshot to pick up speed. Since sunlight will be too weak to capture as a source of energy, the shuttle is indirectly powered by radioactive plutonium – something that has caused controversy.
Pluto was discovered in 1930. It is the furthest planet from the sun. New Horizons will study it extensively, along with its largest moon Charon, which was first identified in 1978. It is hoped research on this dark part of the solar system will shed light on the early universe.
Ken Atkins is a NASA engineer.
“Pluto represents the opportunity for us to investigate the last planet that we haven’t flown by with robotic spacecraft,” he says.
But scientists could end up disqualifying Pluto as a planet – shattering the mysterious aura it enjoys today. A bigger object, dubbed UB-313, has already been discovered. Others might well be found in the ring of small bodies around Pluto known as the Kuiper belt.
That means Pluto could be downgraded to a mere ice dwarf.