Ten years later for PI-led mission to Pluto, Kuiper Belt

Dec 23, 2010 By Alan Stern
New Horizons is rapidly approaching the orbit of Uranus, which it will cross on March 18, 2011 - the same day the MESSENGER mission enters orbit about Mercury.

Billy Joel wrote a song, "This is the Time," and my favorite verse from that old piece goes like this:

"This is the time to remember
'Cause it will not last forever
These are the days to hold on to
'Cause we won't although we'll want to . . ."

Well, 10 years ago, on Dec. 19, 2000, announced that it would conduct a competition for a PI-led mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt. At the time, I'd been involved in leading NASA's science working group for just such a mission, and I had led a successful proposal to build a complete suite of for the mission. So, almost immediately upon NASA's announcement, colleagues asked me to lead a Pluto-Kuiper Belt mission proposal.

Within a week of NASA's announcement, my team had joined up with the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory and formed a larger mission team, which ultimately became known as New Horizons. The 11 months that our team spent together writing and then winning that proposal, and the four subsequent whirlwind years we spent building and launching New Horizons, have become days to remember.

As we enter the 2010 holiday season, with the and instrument payload that our team built now approaching the orbit of Uranus, I can't help but think: 10 years. Ten. Wow.

When you get involved in a project of such length - we still have more than 4 ? years to go to get to Pluto, and another nine months after that to get all our data back on Earth - you can't help but feel your project team is a kind of family, one you're journeying through both space and time with.

Kids grow up. Colleagues age. Some marry. Some divorce. Some die. Others have new children. Fashions change, as do politicians, bureaucrats and so many other things. Designs are conceived; designs are implemented. A spacecraft and rocket are built, and then launched. The craft crosses the orbits of Mars, Jupiter, Saturn and, very soon, Uranus. Still ahead is a orbit crossing in August 2014. And then - in 2015 - the first encounter with the Pluto system, six solid months of it, followed by data downlinking. Then we'll be off, hopefully, to explore even farther from the Sun.

Today, our little bird New Horizons is about as far past the halfway point to Pluto that we crossed in February as the Sun is to the asteroid Ceres. With a spacecraft and instrument payload in excellent shape and on course, and a mission team that's well practiced, I can't help but think: We're 10 years on in this project - and 10 years together, too.

It's amazing how far we have come. But it's even more amazing to think about what the next years will bring.

As I close out this column, I want to wish you a happy, safe, and prosperous holiday season and New Year. And I'll leave you with a question: In December 2020 - when the data from Pluto, Charon, Nix and Hydra, and very likely a KBO or two as well, have been largely digested, when New Horizons is not 19 AU but more than 40 astronomical units from the Sun, when the project is not 10 but 20 years old, and all of us will, hopefully, have the satisfaction of having accomplished something hard and hard won - what will we be saying about these mid-mission days to remember?

is rapidly approaching the orbit of Uranus, which it will cross on March 18, 2011 - the same day the MESSENGER mission enters orbit about Mercury.

Thanks again for following our journey across the ocean of space, to a truly new frontier. And keep on exploring - just as we do!

Explore further: End dawns for Europe's space cargo delivery role

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Student-built instrument set to launch on Pluto mission

Dec 28, 2005

The University of Colorado at Boulder's long heritage with NASA planetary missions will continue Jan. 17 with the launch of a student space dust instrument on the New Horizons Mission to Pluto from Florida's ...

NASA to send spececraft to Pluto

Jan 16, 2006

NASA is all set to launch its $700-million New Horizons spacecraft from Cape Canaveral in Florida on a nearly nine-year journey to Pluto.

New Hubble images show similar colors for Pluto's moons

Mar 10, 2006

Using new Hubble Space Telescope observations, a research team led by Dr. Hal Weaver of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory and Dr. Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute has found ...

Spacecraft to Pluto Prepares for Jupiter Encounter

Jan 18, 2007

NASA's New Horizons spacecraft is on the doorstep of the solar system's largest planet. The spacecraft will study and swing past Jupiter, increasing speed on its voyage toward Pluto, the Kuiper Belt and beyond.

Recommended for you

The source of the sky's X-ray glow

18 hours ago

In findings that help astrophysicists understand our corner of the galaxy, an international research team has shown that the soft X-ray glow blanketing the sky comes from both inside and outside the solar system.

End dawns for Europe's space cargo delivery role

Jul 27, 2014

Europe will close an important chapter in its space flight history Tuesday, launching the fifth and final robot ship it had pledged for lifeline deliveries to the International Space Station.

Giant crater in Russia's far north sparks mystery

Jul 26, 2014

A vast crater discovered in a remote region of Siberia known to locals as "the end of the world" is causing a sensation in Russia, with a group of scientists being sent to investigate.

NASA Mars spacecraft prepare for close comet flyby

Jul 26, 2014

NASA is taking steps to protect its Mars orbiters, while preserving opportunities to gather valuable scientific data, as Comet C/2013 A1 Siding Spring heads toward a close flyby of Mars on Oct. 19.

Bacteria manipulate salt to build shelters to hibernate

Jul 25, 2014

For the first time, Spanish researchers have detected an unknown interaction between microorganisms and salt. When Escherichia coli cells are introduced into a droplet of salt water and is left to dry, b ...

How do we terraform Venus?

Jul 25, 2014

It might be possible to terraform Venus some day, when our technology gets good enough. The challenges for Venus are totally different than for Mars. How will we need to fix Venus?

User comments : 0