Mission to the Ninth Planet Second Largest (Known) Kuiper Belt Object

Contributed by
Jan 16, 2006

UPDATE (12:22 a.m. Pacific time): The launch has been scrubbed for today due to high winds. It happened at the end of the launch window for today, so the launch will be rescheduled for tomorrow at 18:16 Universal time (13:16 p.m. Eastern time).

Live webcam of the Pluto New Horizons launch:

At18:24 Universal time (10:24 a.m. Pacific) on Tuesday, January 17, the New Horizons Pluto mission is scheduled to launch.

This is pretty exciting, since we haven't had a planetary probe launch in a while. Well, it's exciting in any event! It's also neat that this is coming right on the heels of the homecoming of the Stardust mission. Stardust returned a sample of cometary dust, and Pluto is considered to be one of the largest members of the Kuiper Belt, a collection of what are essentially giant comets in the outer solar system.

The launch is a big step, but just the first. The probe will go past Jupiter to get a gravitational assist, which will speed it up and shorten the flight time to Pluto; at least, it will if they launch at the right time. A delay may mean that Jupiter will move out of position, so the probe will have to go straight to Pluto, at a cost of a four to five year lengthening in the flight time. Still, if they launch on time, the flight duration from Earth to Pluto is nine years; it'll pass about 11,000 kilometers from the tiny iceball on July 14, 2015.

When it does, it'll turn its horde of fancy instruments toward Pluto and get better data than is currently possible to obtain from Earth. The best images we have now are pretty blurry, but what do you expect for something that's only 2300 kilometers across and 4.7 billion kilometers away?

If you want to watch the launch, Kennedy Space Center has a fleet of webcams. The image above is also from a live webcam and updates every 30 seconds.

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