Fastest-ever spacecraft launched on trip to Pluto


CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- The fastest spacecraft ever created is speeding toward the solar system's most distant planet, where it will study Pluto, its moon and the icy objects in the nearby Kuiper Belt.

The $700 million New Horizons was developed and built at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory and will be controlled from the mission operations center on its Howard County campus near Laurel.

A Lockheed Martin Atlas V rocket blasted off yesterday at 2 p.m. from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, launching New Horizons on the start of its 3 billion-mile journey. When the spacecraft broke free of Earth's gravity less than an hour later, it was traveling at 36,000 mph.

It took a record nine hours to pass the moon, a destination that once took several days to reach. It will whiz past Mars in three months and giant Jupiter in a little more than a year.

Even so, the craft will take nearly a decade to reach Pluto.

If all goes well, New Horizons will fly near the planet in July 2015, collecting detailed imagery and data on the only uncharted world in the solar system.

The launch was delayed for almost an hour by low clouds. But the skies cleared in time for the 20-story Atlas to bolt from its launch pad with enough force to trigger a chorus of car alarms at Kennedy Space Center.

Alan Stern, a New Horizons scientist, tapped his chest over the heart and said he got a lot of exercise "right here" during the final minutes of the countdown. The rocket performed flawlessly, setting the New Horizons mission on course.

"The spacecraft is where it needs to be and going at the right speed and in the right direction," said NASA launch manager Omar Baez.

The flight was witnessed by Patricia Tombaugh, 93, the widow of astronomer Clyde Tombaugh, who discovered Pluto in 1930. Stern said some of Tombaugh's ashes were carried on the spacecraft in tribute.

Though it will take years to reach its destination, New Horizons already has persevered through decades of false starts and budget cuts that stymied NASA's earlier plans to explore Pluto. New Horizons took shape only after the National Academy of Sciences ranked Pluto and the Kuiper Belt as high scientific priorities.

Astronomers say the outer solar system - kept in a deep freeze by its great distance from the sun - holds remnants from the birth of the solar system and, as such, could provide clues to its earliest days. The Kuiper Belt, where Pluto resides, is littered with chunks of ice and rock that never quite developed into planets.

These embryonic worlds could teach scientists much about the development of Earth and its neighbors.

"We think a lot of secrets about the formation and evolution of the solar system will be found there," said Hal Weaver, New Horizons project scientist.

On its way to Pluto, New Horizons will swing by Jupiter early next year and get a boost in speed from the massive planet's gravity. Scientists plan to test some of the craft's instruments during the maneuver by collecting data from Jupiter and perhaps some of its moons. The specifics will be planned as it draws closer.

But mostly, the spacecraft will remain in electronic hibernation during its long trip, coming to life in the last few months before reaching the frigid edge of the solar system.

The spacecraft carries seven instruments to examine Pluto and its moon, Charon. Those instruments will take images, gather temperature data and identify the components of their atmospheres and surfaces.

The science will be done on a drive-by basis, as New Horizons zooms within 5,500 miles of the planet, then later as it speeds by Charon at a more distant 16,000 miles.

Its work will be powered by 24 pounds of radioactive plutonium, which provides heat through its natural decay that is converted into electricity. At peak, the plutonium will generate about 200 watts of energy, with each instrument requiring no more power than is needed to brighten a nightlight.

Anti-nuclear advocates opposed the mission, saying a launch accident could vaporize some of the deadly plutonium into the atmosphere. NASA and the Department of Energy had put the chance of a plutonium release during a mishap at 1 in 350, and the DOE dispersed teams with radiation monitoring equipment throughout Brevard County in the event of an emergency.

The successful launch caps an eventful week for NASA, which also celebrated the return to Earth on Sunday of its Stardust spacecraft that collected debris from a comet.

Robyn Shelton writes for the Orlando Sentinel.

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