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New Horizons

New Horizons – NASA’s First Mission to the Last Planet

A New Frontier

The New Horizons mission is designed to help us understand worlds at the edge of our solar system by making the first reconnaissance of Pluto and its moon, Charon, and venturing deeper into the distant, mysterious Kuiper Belt – a relic of solar system formation.

The Journey

New Horizons was launched in January 2006, swung past Jupiter for a gravity boost and scientific studies in February – March 2007, and will conduct a five-month-long reconnaissance flyby study of Pluto and Charon in summer 2015. As part of an extended mission, the spacecraft is expected to head farther into the Kuiper Belt to examine one or two 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 could help us answer basic questions about the surface properties, geology, interior makeup and atmosphere on these bodies.

New Science

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 Charon “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 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.

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 also would explore – 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. If New Horizons is successful, it would allow the U.S. to complete the initial reconnaissance of the solar system.

A Team Approach

Principal Investigator Dr. Alan Stern, director of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) Space Studies Department, leads a mission team that includes The John Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), Ball Aerospace Corporation, the Boeing Company, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Stanford University, KinetX, Inc., Lockheed Martin Corporation, University of Colorado, the University of Colorado, the U.S. Department of Energy and a number of other firms, NASA centers and university partners.

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