NASA Postpones Pluto Mission Launch

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
Updated January 17, 2006

NASA officials postponed until tomorrow the planned launch of the New Horizons spacecraft, which was set to blast off today on a nine-year, three-billion-mile (five-billion-kilometer) journey to Pluto.

The most distant official planet in the solar system has never hosted a scientific mission.

"This is the capstone of the initial reconnaissance of the planets, the first mission to the last planet," said Alan Stern, the mission's principal investigator.

"The United States is going to go down in history for the initial reconnaissance of the planets," said Stern, who is based at the Southwest Research Institute's Department of Space Studies in Boulder, Colorado.

Long Ride Ahead

The 1,050-pound (476-kilogram) New Horizons spacecraft will be the fastest in history.

The probe was set to lift off this afternoon from Cape Canaveral, Florida, aboard an Atlas V launch vehicle. But windy conditions delayed the launch, which is rescheduled for 1:16 p.m. ET tomorrow.

Barring mishap, New Horizons should reach the distance of lunar orbit only nine hours after lift off tomorrow.

It will reach and pass Jupiter in just 13 months but won't reach Pluto until 2015 at the earliest.

Tomorrow's launch window will allow the craft to reach and pass Jupiter in early 2007, using the giant planet's gravity as a slingshot to speed its journey to Pluto, cutting five years of travel time.

Stern believes the biggest postlaunch hurdle will be maintaining the spacecraft in an energy-saving hibernation mode—a first for a NASA planet-reconnaissance mission. Hibernation begins, in tentative stages, after the 2007 Jupiter flyby.

"There will be a learning curve," Stein said. "It's revolutionary. But we'll have to ease into that learning curve and do it right, or we could lose the mission."

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