Saturday, 20 January 2007 17:37

NASA spacecraft to slingshot around Jupiter on way to Pluto

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Due to arrive at Pluto in 2015, NASA’s New Horizons probe is getting close to its gravity slingshot around Jupiter – while making detailed observations of Jupiter atmosphere, its ring and moons to send back to Earth.

Set to accelerate by 9,000mph (20%) to reach a velocity of 52,000mph (84,000kph) after the slingshot maneuver, allowing NASA to call it the “fastest spacecraft ever launched”, the slingshot turns out to be essential. Without it, New Horizons wouldn’t have arrived at Pluto until 2018.

But New Horizons won’t just zoom by without saying hello. It will take over 700 images of Jupiter’s atmosphere, ring and four of its largest moons, and will also take the first close up images of the ‘Little Spot’ which is next to Jupiter’s famous ‘Large Spot’ of turbulent atmosphere.

It’s not the first time we’ve been to visit Jupiter, but visit number seven, with any potential Jovian inhabitants well used to seeing strange spacecraft take a peek at what’s happening to the gas giant.

New Horizons will make its closest pass by Jupiter on February 28, getting within 1.4 million miles – a hair’s width in astronomical terms.

NASA will be testing all of New Horizons’ systems as it takes its many photos and other observations of Jupiter, in preparation for its eventual encounter with Pluto in 8 years time.

According to Alan Stern, the New Horizons Principal Investigator at the Southwest Research Institute, “Our highest priority is to get the spacecraft safely through the gravity assist and on its way to Pluto. We also have an incredible opportunity to conduct a real-world encounter stress test to wring out our procedures and techniques, and to collect some valuable science data.”

Interestingly, the data that New Horizons collects won’t be sent back to Earth in real-time, but will be sent in one go following the slingshot maneuver. In early March, New Horizon will turn its antenna towards Earth and will start the data transmission to Mission Control.

When it finally reaches Pluto, New Horizons will stay for five months to study the former planet and its many moons before finally heading off towards the Kuiper Belt, where other ‘worldlets’ will also be studied.

Instead of using a yet-to-be-invented warp drive, New Horizons is powered by enough plutonium to power two 100 watt light bulbs. It can’t use solar power because it is now too far away from the Sun.

No doubt there’ll be more news as New Horizons gets closer to the actual slingshot maneuver at the end of February!


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Alex Zaharov-Reutt

One of Australia’s best-known technology journalists and consumer tech experts, Alex has appeared in his capacity as technology expert on all of Australia’s free-to-air and pay TV networks on all the major news and current affairs programs, on commercial and public radio, and technology, lifestyle and reality TV shows. Visit Alex at Twitter here.

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