NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft successfully completed a flyby of Jupiter early this morning, using the massive planet’s gravity to pick up speed on its 3-billion mile voyage to Pluto and the unexplored Kuiper Belt region beyond.
“We’re on our way to Pluto,” says New Horizons Mission Operations Manager Alice Bowman, of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Md. “The swingby was a success; the spacecraft is on course and performed just as we expected.”
New Horizons came within 1.4 million miles (2.3 million kilometers) of Jupiter at 12:43 a.m. EST, threading an “aim point” that puts it on target to reach the Pluto system in July 2015. During closest approach the spacecraft was out of touch with Earth – busily gathering science data on the giant planet, its moons and atmosphere – but by 11:55 a.m. EST mission operators at APL had established contact with New Horizons through NASA’s Deep Space Network and confirmed its health and status.
The fastest spacecraft ever launched, New Horizons is gaining nearly 9,000 miles per hour (14,000 kilometers per hour) from Jupiter’s gravity – half the speed of a space shuttle in orbit – accelerating past 52,000 mph (83,600 km/h) away from the Sun. New Horizons has covered approximately 500 million miles (800 million kilometers) since launch in January 2006, and reached Jupiter quicker than the seven previous spacecraft to visit the solar system’s largest planet. Today it raced through an aim point just 500 miles (800 kilometers) across – the equivalent of a skeet shooter in Washington hitting a target in Baltimore on the first try.
New Horizons has been running through an intense six-month systems check that will include more than 700 science observations of the Jupiter system by the end of June. More than half of those observations are taking place this week, including scans of Jupiter’s turbulent atmosphere, measurements of its magnetic cocoon (called the magnetosphere), surveys of its delicate rings, maps of the composition and topography of the large moons Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto, and a detailed look at volcanic activity on Io. While much of the close-in science data will be sent back to Earth during the coming weeks, the team will download a sampling of images this week to verify New Horizons’ performance.
The outbound leg of New Horizons’ journey includes the first-ever trip down the long “tail” of Jupiter’s magnetosphere, a wide stream of charged particles that extends more than 100 million miles beyond the planet. And telescopes on and above Earth – from amateur astronomers’ backyard telescopes, to the giant Keck telescope in Hawaii, to the Hubble Space Telescope, Chandra X-Ray Observatory and others – are turning to Jupiter as New Horizons flies by, ready to provide global context to the close-up data New Horizons gathers.
“We designed the entire Jupiter encounter to be a tough test for the mission team and our spacecraft, and we’re passing the test,” says New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern, from the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo. “We’re not only learning what we can expect from the spacecraft when we visit Pluto in eight years, we’re already getting some stunning science results at Jupiter – and there’s more to come.”