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NASA Launches New Horizons Space Craft on Mission to Pluto

January 19th 2006

NASA Launches New Horizons Space Craft on Mission to Pluto

Today's Launch

Scientists have been debating whether Pluto should be classified as a planet or just another rock in space orbiting the sun.  Hopefully this question will be answered by NASA in 9 years.  Today, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration launched the New Horizons spacecraft on top of a Lockheed-Martin Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

The New Horizon craft will travel to Pluto and its moon Charon in an effort to shed light on the body’s surface properties, geology, interior makeup and atmospheres.  The “flyby” studies will take place in 2015.

This is the first mission to Pluto.  Dr. Colleen Hartman, Deputy Associate Administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington, D.C, said “Today, NASA began an unprecedented journey of exploration to the ninth planet in the solar system.  Right now, what we know about Pluto could be written on the back of a postage stamp. After this mission, we'll be able to fill textbooks with new information."


The 1,054 pound piano sized spacecraft is the fastest ever launched.  It will reach speeds of approximately 36,000 miles per hour and its trajectory will take it more than 3 billion miles from Earth.  New Horizons will pass Jupiter in 2007 and conduct the first close-up, in depth study of Pluto eight years later. 

According to NASA, as part of a potential extended mission, the spacecraft would then examine one or more additional objects in the Kuiper Belt, the region of ancient, icy, rocky bodies (including Pluto) far beyond Neptune's orbit.

The entire spacecraft, drawing electricity from a single radioisotope thermoelectric generator, operates on less power than a pair of 100-watt household light bulbs.  There was concern that the plutonium used to power the craft may escape.  There was 24 pounds of radioactive plutonium located in New Horizon's radioisotope thermoelectric generator.  This is an aluminum-encased, 123-pound cylinder, 3.5 feet long and 1.5 foot wide, that sticks out the side of the spacecraft.  Inside this cylinder are 18 graphite-enclosed compartments with each compartment holding 1.3 pounds of plutonium dioxide. 


Similar generators have been used before.  Eight years ago there were hundreds of protestors displaying disproval of sending plutonium into space.  During this launch there were only about 30 protestors.  . 

The US Department of Energy and NASA have said the odds of a radioactive leak are 1 in 350 chances / launches. They estimate the cost of a clean-up to be $241 million to 1.3 billion per square mile if there were an accident.  NASA says there was no radiation released during this launch. 

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By Dan Wilson
Best Syndication Staff Writer

Books on Space

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Copyright 2005 Best Syndication                                            Last Updated Saturday, July 10, 2010 09:51 PM