Remember NASA’s New Horizons space probe?
The robotic spacecraft assigned to study Pluto, Charon and Kuiper Belt Objects on it’s way out of the Solar System? Unless you’re an avid follower of such missions, you probably don’t. I am. I still follow Cassini, even though it’s primary mission of 45 targeted close encounters with Titan has ended, because of the wealth of data coming from it’s now extended mission.
New Horizons will, as of January 19 next year, have been three years in space. The fastest robotic spacecraft to have ever left the Earth, three years is only enough to have taken it one-fifth of the way between Saturn and Uranus. Let me share some of the mind-numbing factoids with you.
Currently, New Horizons is 12.92 Astronomical Units from Earth, or 1.933 billion kilometres. It still has 2.946 billion kilometres to go before reaching the target of it’s mission. The robot is speeding to an ultimate exit of our system at a staggering 17.48 kilometres every second. It travels just over 1.5 million kilometres every day. New Horizons won’t reach encounter with Pluto until July 14, 2015. Another 6.5 years.
I find the distances, speeds required and timelines imposed to be absolutely fantastically mind-boggling.
New Horizons will live on long after it’s primary mission ends in 2015. Where it heads off to is undefined. Both Voyager probes, launched in August and September of 1977, remain in contact with NASA through that organisation’s network of deep space radio telescopes and still provide telemetry daily regarding position and basic conditions. It’s hoped that New Horizons will perform likewise. For now, the vessel will hibernate, to be awoken once a year for six weeks while systems checks and software uploads are completed. Only six years and a few months to go and we’ll have a chance to see what the outer rim of our system looks like. Personally, I can’t wait.