10 Amazing Science Facts About NASA’s New Horizons Mission to Pluto

By Phill Powell

Humankind has officially traveled further into space than ever before – courtesy of NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, which just completed a decade-long trek through our solar system.

This artist’s illustration of the New Horizons craft shows the probe passing by Pluto and one of its moons. (Image: NASA)

The spacecraft is now about 7,800 miles above the surface of Pluto (located in the Kuiper Belt), or about 2.9 billion miles from Earth. That’s the longest distance ever traveled by a manmade object.

With the New Horizons probe passing by Pluto at a speed of 14 kilometers or 8.6 miles a second, it will have a great opportunity for some amazing pictures. The spacecraft has a visible light telescope (and a total of seven instruments) and has been sending back true-color NASA photos of Pluto, which turns out to display a light copper color.

Here are some more amazing facts about NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto:

1. Spacecraft Code: When it came time to write programming code for the New Horizons spacecraft, Assembly was the programming language selected by scientists.

2. A Planet is Born: Pluto was discovered on Feb. 18, 1930 by American astronomer Clyde W. Tombaugh, working at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Ariz. Tombaugh died in 1997; in tribute, some of his ashes are now on board the New Horizons spacecraft.

Planetary name “134340 Pluto.” This image was captured by the New Horizons probe, from a distance of 2.5 million kilometers. (Image: NASA)

3. It’s Right on Schedule: The New Horizons craft arrived at its fly-by destination more than a minute early – completing its 10-year journey a full 72 seconds ahead of schedule.

4. Long-Distance Voyager: Because of its remote location, it takes Pluto 248 years to orbit the sun, as opposed to 1 year for Earth.

5. Interstellar Download: It will take up to 16 months for the craft to finish sending back the graphic files from Pluto. Each image requires about 4.5 hours to be sent.

6. Technically, It’s Not a Planet: Pluto was reclassified as a “dwarf planet” in 2005 because of its relatively low mass and because there are asteroids in Pluto’s orbit that are actually larger than it is.

NASA mission scientists celebrate with a cool bumpersticker. (Image: NASA)

7. Light-Speed Delivery: If you compare the transmittal rate of the photos from Pluto to light traveling from the Sun to the Earth, you see that sunlight requires 8 minutes to make the trip. Photos from Pluto to the Earth require 270 minutes to make the trip. In other words, photos from Pluto are traveling about 1/33 the speed of sunlight.

8. Tough Life for Humans: Pluto’s atmosphere is much thinner than Earth’s (Earth atmosphere = 1 bar. Pluto atmosphere = 10 microbars). Pluto’s atmosphere is made up of up to 98 percent nitrogen (N2), along with trace amounts of methane (CH4) and carbon monoxide (CO). And Pluto’s surface temperature is not very welcoming either. Average temp: a chilly -370F.

9. Next Up for New Horizons: New Horizons has come pretty much to the end of its journey. However, the craft does have some remaining propellant and there are currently discussions about extending the New Horizons mission to include another nearby destination within the Kuiper Belt.

10. Forever Adrift: Even after the New Horizons spacecraft finishes its final mission, it will continue to travel, drifting on endlessly. It’s expected to retain its on-board power for another 10 years or so.

This image is the closest humans have ever come to Pluto. (Image: NASA)

Pluto’s (center) size compared to Earth. The planet below Pluto is Charon, the largest of Pluto’s five moons. Charon is mutually tidally locked with Pluto, and is massive enough that Pluto–Charon is sometimes considered a double dwarf planet. (Image: NASA)

Go Further This Summer
Man has been able to achieve amazing accomplishments in space through his pursuit of technology, which makes all interplanetary exploration possible.

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