JHU-Built Probe Nears Pluto

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Photo via Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab/Southwest Research Institute
Photo via Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab/Southwest Research Institute

Yes, the movie Interstellar–which features a spacecraft entering a wormhole in the vicinity of Saturn, and zipping over into another galaxy–is fiction. But NASA is currently in the process of sending a a probe three billion (!!) miles through deep space in order to gain more information about Pluto and its moons.

Pluto may no longer be an official planet, but NASA scientists are still very interested in learning more about it. That’s why they launched New Horizons, a space probe built and operated by scientists at Johns Hopkins’ Applied Physics Laboratory, in 2006.

New Horizons was designed with serious space travel in mind: it’s powered by a single radioisotope thermoelectric generator, and needs less power than two 100-watt light bulbs to function. It was also programmed to spend most of its time in hibernation mode, much like the space travelers in interstellar. For most of its 8-year journey, it’s been unpowered, except for the two times per year that operators wake it back up to remotely check on the systems and correct its course, if necessary.

New Horizons is scheduled to make up again this Saturday at 3 p.m. At that point, the space craft will be 2.9 billion miles from Earth and 162 million miles from Pluto. It will be closest to Pluto on July 14.

“We’ve worked years to prepare for this moment,” Mark Holdridge, the mission manager, told the Hopkins Hub. “New Horizons might have spent most of its cruise time across nearly three billion miles of space sleeping, but our team has done anything but, conducting a flawless flight past Jupiter just a year after launch, putting the spacecraft through annual workouts, plotting out each step of the Pluto flyby and even practicing the entire Pluto encounter on the spacecraft. We are ready to go.”



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