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Updated: July 8th, 2008 05:26 PM CDT

NASA Sets Sights on First Pluto Mission

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"Exploring Pluto and the Kuiper Belt is like conducting an archeological dig into the history of the outer solar system, a place where we can peek into the ancient era of planetary formation," said Alan Stern , New Horizons principal investigator, Southwest Research Institute Department of SpaceStudies, Boulder, Colo.

Designed and built at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, Laurel, Md., pending launch approval, New Horizons is set to launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., no earlier than Jan. 17, 2006 . The launch window extends until Feb. 14, 2006 .

The compact, 1,050-pound piano-sized probe will launch aboard an Atlas V expendable launch vehicle, followed by a boost from a kick-stage solid propellant motor. New Horizons will be the fastest spacecraft ever launched, reaching lunar orbit distance in just nine hours and passing Jupiter 13 months later.

Launch before Feb. 3 allows New Horizons to fly past Jupiter in early 2007 and use the planet's gravity as a slingshot toward Pluto. The Jupiter fly by trims the trip to Pluto by five years and provides opportunities to test the spacecraft's instruments and flyby capabilities on the Jupiter system.

The New Horizons science payload, developed under direction of Southwest Research Institute, includes imaging infrared and ultraviolet spectrometers, a multi-color camera, a long-range telescopic camera, two particle spectrometers, a space-dust detector and a radio science experiment. The dust counter was designed and built by students at the University of Colorado, Boulder.


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