The First Mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt
A New Frontier
The New Horizons mission is designed to help us understandworlds at the edge of our solar system by making the ﬁrstreconnaissance of Pluto and its moon, Charon, and venturingdeeper into the distant, mysterious Kuiper Belt – a relic of solarsystem formation.
New Horizons launched in January 2006; it will swing past Jupiterfor a gravity boost and scientiﬁc studies in February 2007, andthen conduct a ﬁve-month-long reconnaissance ﬂyby study ofPluto and Charon in summer 2015. As part of an extended mission,the spacecraft is expected to head farther into the Kuiper Belt toexamine one or two of the ancient, icy mini-worlds in that vastregion, at least a billion miles beyond Neptune’s orbit.Sending a spacecraft on this long journey will help us answer basicquestions about the surface properties, geology, interior makeupand atmospheres on these bodies.
The National Academy of Scienceshas ranked the exploration of theKuiper Belt – including Pluto – ofthe highest priority for solar systemexploration. Generally, New Horizonsseeks to understand where Pluto andCharon “ﬁt in” with the other objectsin the solar system, such asthe inner rocky planets(Earth, Mars, Venus andMercury) and the outergas giants (Jupiter,Saturn, Uranusand Neptune).Pluto and Charon belong to a third categoryknown as “ice dwarfs.” They have solidsurfaces but, unlike the terrestrialplanets, a signiﬁcant portionof their mass is icymaterial. A close-up look at these worlds from a spacecraft promises totell an incredible story about the origins and outskirts of our solarsystem. New Horizons also will explore – for the ﬁrst time – howice dwarf planets like Pluto and Kuiper Belt bodies have evolvedover time.
The Need to Explore
The United States has been the ﬁrst nation to reach every planetfrom Mercury to Neptune with a space probe. If New Horizonsis successful, it would allow the U.S. to complete the initialreconnaissance of the solar system.
A Team Approach
Principal Investigator Dr. Alan Stern, director of the SouthwestResearch Institute (SwRI) Space Studies Department, leadsa mission team that includes The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), Ball Aerospace Corporation, theBoeing Company, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Stanford University, KinetX, Inc.,Lockheed Martin Corporation, University of Colorado, theU.S. Department of Energy and a number of other ﬁrms,NASA centers and university partners.
A NASA New Frontiers Mission
Artist’s concept of the New Horizons spacecraft and Pluto-Charon