New Horizons Set for Launch

The first spacecraft mission to the last of the original nine planets in our solar system is schedule for launch on Tuesday, January 17, 2006. New Horizons will begin its journey as the fastest spacecraft ever launched from the Earth. The speed is necessary to reach Pluto and its three known moons in just a little over nine years.

Pluto lies in a region of our solar system known as the Kuiper Belt, a disk-shaped band around the Sun thought to consist of tens of thousands or more small icy bodies. The existence of the Kuiper Belt has been confirmed by the discovery since 1992 of several objects nearly the size of Pluto. Last year, astronomers announced the discovery of a a Kuiper Belt object code named “Xena” that is larger than Pluto. Soon after came announcements about two new moons found orbiting Pluto and a moon found orbiting the tenth planet.

New Horizons will fly by Pluto, its largest moon Charon, and its two smaller moons in July 2015. All instruments on board the spacecraft will have to work quickly to explore the Plutonian system because close approach will last only 24 hours. Once it has passed Pluto, New Horizons will target other Kuiper Belt objects between 2016 and 2020.

Since the discovery of Xena, scientists have been debating just what a planet is, a debate that will have to be resolved before the body can be officially named. If scientists agree that Pluto is just another member of the Kuiper Belt, it may lose its status as a planet and the solar system will officially have eight planets. If instead the diameter of Pluto becomes the new lower limit for defining a planet, then Xena will likely also gain official status as a planet. So far there have been no indications as to when a decision will be reached.

New Horizons will launch from Kennedy Space Center. The window of opportunity for launch begins on Tuesday and lasts through February 14, 2006.

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Richard Leis

Richard Leis is a fiction writer and poet, with his first published poem forthcoming later in 2017 from Impossible Archetype. His essays about fairy tales and technology have been published on Tiny Donkey. Richard is also the Downlink Lead for the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) team at the University of Arizona. He monitors images of the Martian surface taken by the HiRISE camera located on board the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter in orbit around Mars and helps ensure they process successfully and are validated for quick release to the science community and public. Once upon a time, Richard wrote and edited the science and technology news and commentary website Frontier Channel, hosted the RADIO Frontier Channel podcast, and organized transhumanist clubs. Follow Richard on his website (richardleis.com), on Goodreads (richardleis), his Micro.blog (@richardleis), Twitter (@richardleisjr), and Facebook (richardleisjr).