In the weeks after its launch in early 2006, when NASANew Horizons was still close to home, taking only minutes to give a command to the spacecraft and hear back that the on-board computer had received and was ready to follow instructions.
As New Horizons crossed the solar system and its distance from Earth jumped from millions to billions of miles, the time between contacts increased from a few minutes to several hours. And on April 17 at 12:42 UTC (or April 17 at 8:42 EDT), New Horizons reached a rare deep space – 50 astronomical units from the Sun or 50 times farther from the Sun than the Earth.
Scale of the solar system
Here’s a way to imagine how far 50 AU is: Think of a solar system located on a neighborhood street; The sun is a house to the left of the “home” (or Earth), Mars will be the next house on the right and Jupiter there will be only four houses on the right. New Horizons will be 50 houses on the street, 17 houses across the street Pluto!!
New Horizons is only the fifth spacecraft to reach this great distance, following the legendary Voyagers 1 and 2 and their predecessors, Pioneers 10 and 11. It is almost 5 billion miles (7.5 billion kilometers) away; a remote region where one of these radio commands, even traveling at the speed of light, is needed seven hours to reach the distant spaceship. Then add another seven hours before his Earth control team finds out if the message has been received.
“It’s hard to imagine that far,” said Alice Bowman, operations manager for the New Horizons mission at the John Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland. “One thing that makes this distance tangible is how long it takes us on Earth to confirm that the spacecraft has received our instructions. This has gone from almost instantaneously to now at around 2 p.m. This makes the final distance real. “
To mark the occasion, New Horizons recently photographed the star field where one of its long-distance cousins, Voyager 1, emerges from New Horizons’ unique perch in the Kuiper Belt. Never before has a spacecraft in the Kuiper Belt photographed the location of an even more distant spacecraft that is now in interstellar space. Although Voyager 1 is too weak to be seen directly in the image, its location is known precisely because of NASA radio tracking.
“It’s a great beautiful image for me,” said Alan Stern, principal investigator for New Horizons at the Southwestern Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado.
“Looking back at New Horizons’ flight from Earth to 50 AU almost seems like a dream,” he continued. “A spacecraft flying through our entire solar system to explore Pluto and the Kuiper Belt has never been done before New Horizons. Most of us on the team are part of this mission, because it was just an idea and during that time our children grew up and our parents, like ourselves, grew up. But most importantly, we’ve made a lot of scientific discoveries, inspired countless STEM careers, and even made a little history. “
New Horizons is practically designed to make history. Sent at 36,400 miles per hour (58,500 kilometers per hour) on January 19, 2006, New Horizons was and still is the fastest human object ever launched from Earth. His flight to Jupiter’s gravity in February 2007 not only shaved about three years after his trip to Pluto, but allowed him to take the best views of Jupiter’s faint ring and shoot the first film of a volcano erupting anywhere in the solar system. except for the Earth.
New Horizons successfully conducted the first study of Pluto’s system in July 2015, followed by the longest flight in history – and a first close-up view of a Kuiper Belt (KBO) object – with its flight past Arrokoth on New Year’s Day 2019. From its unique perch in the Kuiper belt, New Horizons makes observations that cannot be made anywhere else; even the stars look different from the spaceship’s point of view.
New Horizons team members use giant telescopes such as Japan’s Subaru Observatory to scan the sky for another potential (and distant) KBO flying target, New Horizons itself staying healthy, collecting data on the solar wind and space environment in the Kuiper Belt, other sites. on the Kuiper belt and distant planets such as Uranium and Neptune. This summer, the mission team will hand over software upgrades to enhance New Horizons’ scientific capabilities. For future research, the spacecraft’s nuclear battery must provide enough power to keep New Horizons running until the late 2030s.