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New Horizons

New Horizons mission graphic

Phase: Operating

Launch Date: January 19, 2006

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Program(s):New Frontiers

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The New Horizons Pluto-Kuiper Belt Mission, launched in January 2006 and due to arrive at Pluto in 2015, will help us to understand the icy worlds at the edge of our solar system. The mission will then visit one or more Kuiper Belt Objects beyond Pluto. New Horizons made a close flyby of Jupiter in Feb. 2007 in order to get a gravitational boost enroute to Pluto, shortening its cruise time by about 3 years.  The instruments were exercised successfully and returned exciting Jupiter science to earth, including images of a 200 mile high plume from the active Tvashtar volcano. 

This beautiful image of the crescents of volcanic Io and more sedate Europa is a combination of two New Horizons images taken March 2, 2007.

The giant plume from Io's Tvashtar volcano. This New Horizons image captures the giant plume from Tvashtar volcano on Jupiter’s moon Io. Snapped by the probe's Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) as the spacecraft flew past Jupiter in March 2007. Io's plume of volcanic debris, which extends 330 kilometers (200 miles) above the moon's surface. Only the upper part of the plume is visible from this vantage point -- the plume's source is 130 kilometers (80 miles) below the edge of Io's disk, on the far side of the moon. The plume appears blue in scattered sunlight.
Image Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

Our solar system has three classes of planets: the rocky “terrestrial” planets (Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars); beyond them the giant planets (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune); and the third zone, of primitive icy bodies that are found principally in the Kuiper Belt beyond Neptune.  These objects are believed to be representative of the material which condensed to form the other planets.  Their growth into full sized planets was arrested early in the history of the solar system.  Hence they hold clues about the distant past of the solar system and the chemical endowment of all the planets including our Earth.  There may be as many as a billion of these objects of greater than 10 km in diameter.  The National Academy of Sciences placed the exploration of the third zone in general - and Pluto-Charon in particular - among its highest priority planetary mission rankings for this decade. As the first mission to investigate this class of planetary bodies, New Horizons will fill an important gap in our knowledge of the solar system.  Following its visit to the Pluto/Charon/Nix/Hydra system in July 2015, the spacecraft will proceed deeper into the Kuiper Belt to study one or more of the icy mini-worlds in that vast region, up to a billion miles beyond Neptune's orbit.

The progress of New Horizons toward its distant targets can be followed at the New Horizons Mission website.