New Horizons, the NASA spacecraft on its way to Pluto, has been given the final ‘all clear’ for its path towards the dwarf planet.
The team behind the nine-year mission have been searching for dust clouds, rings, and other potential hazards that could disrupt the spacecraft’s path. Because New Horizons is traveling at 30,800 mph (49,600 kph), a particle as small as a grain of rice could be lethal, but thanks to the spacecraft’s most powerful telescopic camera, the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI), the team can confirm that the route appears to be safe. If a hazard had been detected, a late detour would have had to be made, as the last opportunity to change course is 4 July.
Jim Green, director of planetary science at NASA, said:
“We’re breathing a collective sigh of relief knowing that the way appears to be clear. The science payoff will be richer as we gather data from the optimal flight path, as opposed to having to conduct observations from one of the back-up trajectories.”
New Horizons formed a hazard analysis team in 2011, after the discovery of Pluto’s fourth moon, Kerberos, raised concerns that additional hazardous debris could spread into New Horizons’ path.
Mission engineers re-tested spare parts of spacecraft back on Earth to determine how well they would stand up to particle impacts, allowing them to estimate the chances of a catastrophic incident at far less than one percent.
Principal investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colorado, said:
“Not finding new moons or rings present is a bit of a scientific surprise to most of us, but as a result, no engine burn is needed to steer clear of potential hazards. We presented these data to NASA for review and received approval to proceed on course and plan. We are ‘go’ for the best of our planned Pluto encounter trajectories.”
New Horizons closest flyby of Pluto is expected to take place on 14 July 2015. To find out more about the mission and what we hope to learn from the flyby that’s been nine years in the making, watch our latest video…
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