Goals: NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft is designed to make the first close-up study of Pluto and its moons and other icy worlds in the distant Kuiper Belt. The spacecraft has seven scientific instruments to study the atmospheres, surfaces, interiors and intriguing environments of Pluto and its distant neighbours.
The New Horizons mission is helping us understand worlds at the edge of our solar system by making the first reconnaissance of the dwarf planet Pluto and by venturing deeper into the distant, mysterious Kuiper Belt – a relic of solar system formation.
New Horizons launched on Jan. 19, 2006; it swung past Jupiter for a gravity boost and scientific studies in February 2007, and conducted a six-month-long reconnaissance flyby study of Pluto and its moons in summer 2015, culminating with Pluto closest approach on July 14, 2015. As part of an extended mission, pending NASA approval, the spacecraft is expected to head farther into the Kuiper Belt to examine another of the ancient, icy mini-worlds in that vast region, at least a billion miles beyond Neptune’s orbit.
Sending a spacecraft on this long journey is helping us to answer basic questions about the surface properties, geology, interior makeup and atmospheres on these bodies.
The National Academy of Sciences has ranked the exploration of the Kuiper Belt – including Pluto – of the highest priority for solar system exploration. Generally, New Horizons seeks to understand where Pluto and its moons “fit in” with the other objects in the solar system, such as the inner rocky planets (Earth, Mars, Venus and Mercury) and the outer gas giants (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune).
Pluto and its largest moon, Charon, belong to a third category known as “ice dwarfs.” They have solid surfaces but, unlike the terrestrial planets, a significant portion of their mass is icy material.
Using Hubble Space Telescope images, New Horizons team members have discovered four previously unknown moons of Pluto: Nix, Hydra, Styx and Kerberos.
A close-up look at these worlds from a spacecraft promises to tell an incredible story about the origins and outskirts of our solar system. New Horizons is exploring – for the first time – how ice dwarf planets like Pluto and Kuiper Belt bodies have evolved over time.
The Need to Explore
The United States has been the first nation to reach every planet from Mercury to Neptune with a space probe. New Horizons is allowing the U.S. to complete the initial reconnaissance of the solar system.
A Team Approach
The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland, designed, built, and operates the New Horizons spacecraft and manages the mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.
Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colorado is the principal investigator. SwRI is responsible for science payload operations, data reduction and archiving, and participates in the science team.
The mission team also includes KinetX, Inc. (navigation team), Ball Aerospace Corporation, the Boeing Company, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Stanford University, Lockheed Martin Corporation, University of Colorado, the U.S. Department of Energy and a number of other firms, NASA centers and university partners.
NASA’s New Horizons mission is part of the New Frontiers Program managed by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.
• Ralph: Visible and infrared imager/spectrometer; provides
color, composition and thermal maps.
• Alice: Ultraviolet imaging spectrometer; analyzes composition and structure of Pluto’s atmosphere and looks for atmospheres around Charon and Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs).
• REX (Radio Science EXperiment): Measures atmospheric
composition and temperature; passive radiometer.
• LORRI (Long Range Reconnaissance Imager): Telescopic
camera; obtains encounter data at long distances, maps
Pluto’s far side and provides high resolution geologic data.
• SWAP (Solar Wind Around Pluto): Solar wind and plasma
spectrometer; measures atmospheric “escape rate” and
observes Pluto’s interaction with solar wind.
• PEPSSI (Pluto Energetic Particle Spectrometer Science
Investigation): Energetic particle spectrometer; measures
the composition and density of plasma (ions) escaping from
• VBSDC (Venetia Burney Student Dust Counter): Built and
operated by students at University of Colorado; measures
the space dust peppering New Horizons during its voyage
across the solar system.