The majority of what we know about the solar system and the greater universe comes from telescope images taken from Earth. The New Horizons mission set to change this. New Horizons is an interplanetary space probe that was engineered at Johns Hopkins University and launched in 2006 at 36,000 mph with its destination set as Pluto. It took nine years, but this space probe finally reached Pluto in 2015 and performed a flyby study, giving us some of the best and closest images of Pluto.
The general goals of New Horizons as stated by Wikipedia are to “understand the formation of the Pluto system, the Kuiper belt, and the transformation of the early Solar System.” The data that we receive from the spacecraft have helped us learn about the surface of Pluto, along with its mass and mass distribution. We also learned about Pluto’s atmosphere, specifically its density and composition.
In addition, this space probe did give us information along its way to the outer reaches of our solar system. It encountered an asteroid and also passed by Jupiter in 2007. Its closest approach was some 1.4 million miles away from Jupiter. Flying by Jupiter also allowed for a gravity assist that increased the speed of the space probe. New Horizons sent us information about Jupiter’s atmosphere, moons, and magnetosphere.
After passing by Jupiter, the space probe spent the majority of its time in hibernation to preserve the systems for when it would reach Pluto. At the end of 2014, scientists brought New Horizons back online in preparation for the Pluto flyby. At the start of 2015, the spacecraft began to approach Pluto. On July 14 of 2015, New Horizons flew 7,800 miles above Pluto’s surface, which made it the first spacecraft to ever explore Pluto, a dwarf planet whose 4.7 billion miles from Earth make explorations difficult. New Horizons sent data back to Earth for a few months, and on October 25, we received the last data from the Pluto flyby mission.
As a secondary mission, New Horizons is going to study Kuiper belt objects in the following decade. It is now on course for a flyby of one specific object and is expected to arrive on the first day of the year 2019. At this point, New Horizons will have reached an astonishing 43.4 AU from the Sun, where 1 AU is the distance from the Earth to the Sun. So far, the New Horizons spacecraft has cost around $700 million over a fifteen-year period. This spacecraft is letting us travel farther than ever before, and it is key to learning about objects about which we have no easy way of getting information. The kind of data that we receive from New Horizons is helping us discover more about the outer reaches of our solar system, something that is a notable advancement in the field of astronomy.