Sunday, July 19, 2015

The New Horizons Spacecraft: One Giant Leap For Robotic Space Exploration?

Despite their limitations in comparison to human space explorers, is the New Horizon spacecraft demonstrates the best of our current robotic spacecraft ability? 

By: Ringo Bones 

Despite of the post Cold War austere fiscal environment at NASA, the recent successes demonstrated by the New Horizons spacecraft currently taking our clearest snapshots of Pluto so far can be quite inspiring to anyone interested in astronomy and space exploration as a whole. Given the spacecraft’s recent accomplishment despite being built on a “relatively” shoestring budget of 700 million US dollars is no mean feat indeed. 

When NASA’s task-masters at Capitol Hill green lit the New Horizons program back in 2001 and the four year timetable on the construction of the craft for its scheduled launched at the beginning of 2006 are just one of the miracles successfully pulled off by the New Horizons spacecraft. If the funding and launch timetable was delayed to several weeks after the International Astronomical Union declared that Pluto is no longer a planet, the “princes” at Capitol Hill would probably had scrapped the funding of the New Horizons program. In honor of Pluto’s discoverer, astronomer Clyde Tombaugh, Tombaugh’s ashes was taken onboard as payload on the New Horizons spacecraft so that he can achieve the closest physically possible of actually visiting Pluto first hand. 

Due to its distance and small size, the world’s astronomical community have virtually little interest on the planet Pluto that between the cataloguing of the planet via “old school” astronomical photographic plates by Clyde Tombaugh in the 1930s and astronomer Carl Lampland in the 1950s, the actual location of Pluto’s orbit could be in error by as much as 62,000 miles. It was only after 1990 that the global astronomical community’s orbital data accuracy on Pluto became on par of that of the planets Uranus and Neptune. It is only understandably so due to Pluto’s remoteness at over 3 billion miles away from planet Earth and since Clyde Tombaugh’s discovery of Pluto in 1930, astronomers here on Earth had only “witnessed” about 1/3 of its almost 250-year orbit around our Sun.  

The recent New Horizons spacecraft’s successful 8,000 mile “close flyby” would not have happened without the due diligence of one of the New Horizons program’s co investigator Dr. Marc Buie due to a lack of usefully accurate data on Pluto’s orbit and actual distance from the Sun. By 2012, the New Horizon’s team was concerned on the lack of accurate orbital data on the planet Pluto that Dr. Buie actually did his own legwork at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona in order to reexamine around 1,000 of astronomical photographic plates of Pluto taken by Clyde Tombaugh and Carl Lampland during 1930 to 1950. The new computational data acquired by Dr. Buie became very indispensible in programming the New Horizon’s spacecraft’s trajectory so that when it encounters Pluto by July 2015, it will be within 8,000 miles – as opposed to 62,000 miles away. 

Due to its destination’s remoteness from the Sun where the ambient strength of sunlight is only 1/1000th found here on Earth, the use of solar panels is out of the question in the New Horizons spacecraft. Instead, it uses a plutonium-239 powered thermoelectric reactor similar to that used in the Voyager spacecraft to power its systems. Due to Pluto’s remoteness, it took nine and a half years for New Horizons to reach its Pluto flyby despite travelling 1 million miles a day at 51,000 miles per hour.